TALK OF THE TRADE

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The Independent Online
Drama revival at the BBC

The BBC's £243m spring and summer schedules are stuffed with new programmes and dramas, the results of efficiency savings and the banishing of cheap summer repeats. No doubt that something of a long-awaited programme revival is beginning, though key areas (such as popular drama) are going to be last in the cycle. And a long cycle it is, to judge by a startling attack on Biteback (the BBC's public response programme) at the weekend by Lucy Gannon (author of ITV's hit Peak Practice). She said that not only does the BBC have no idea what the mass of viewers want from a popular drama, but that they sit on scripts for nine months before making a decision, by which time idea and motivation have gone cold.

This is one more area in which the BBC will be forced to raise its game by ITV. Watching the edited programme launch highlights last week left one with an odd feeling of familiarity. There is a new BBC1 series called The Vet, starring a woman vet who joins a conservative rural practice, while Hamish Macbeth, starting this Sunday, is a new police series set in a scenic Highland village. Clear overtones of Peak Practice and Heartbeat. But will they be more watchable than BBC1's most recent dire efforts at popular drama, Crown Prosecutor and Dangerfield? The other key issue is whether Producer Choice, the internal market system introduced to cut costs in 1993, is creaking to a halt. The Corporation confirms it has imposed an indefinite halt on commissioning new programmes, while it conducts an audit of its stocks - programmes waiting to be transmitted. Producers of factual programmes for example, face a three-month freeze. The action is clearly connected to the looming 31 March end of the 1994/95 financial year: the BBC had committed itself to halving its £200m borrowing by that point. One great mystery of the BBC's budgets is the way the channels only "pay" for programmes when they are transmitted, although the producing departments or commissioning editors obviously have to finance them long before.

On balance, it is shaping up to be a nasty spring for independent producers.

Potts to head PA

The Press Association news agency has finally alighted on a new editor - Paul Potts (above) - to replace Colin Webb. Potts, currently deputy editor of the Daily Express, has experience of the needs both of regional and tabloid national newspapers (his cv spans the Sheffield Star, Yorkshire Post, News of the World, the Mail on Sunday). And he will have his work cut out: he has to hold on to subscriptions from the big regional evening newspapers, while seeking new outlets in the electronic media. PA (along with Reuters) may be one of Britain's most enduring media brands, but its traditional print service is under intense attack: Northcliffe's regional newspaper division, for example, has launched a rival Leicester-based service, News Line. Mr Potts says the service has to be faster, using state-of-the-art technology. And it has to raise its profile by providing services under its own name to radio and cable networks. One advantage is that the PA is moving from its Fleet Street headquarters to newly equipped premises in that new quarter for media operators: Victoria.

Dorrell's dilemma

Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for National Heritage ("I'm perfectly happy to be described as businesslike"), popped up at the Television Show last week for a shambolic seminar, where he was grilled about the state of his portfolio. On the cross-media ownership review (should the UK relax rules restricting press groups from moving into the broadcast media?) he insisted he was still grappling with the issue. He does not go along with the view that unhealthy media concentration can be left to the policing by the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies & Mergers Commission: he wants to hear a "cacophony of voices". But he did say reports that he would only ease newspaper restrictions by raising the limit they can hold in an ITV franchise from 20 per cent to 29.9 per cent were "completely untrue". The British Media Industry group, the lobby for Associated Newspapers, Pearson and the Guardian, today publicises its alternative proposals for measuring market share, an indication of their frustration. Meanwhile, Channel 5 will be allocated to the current unsatisfactory rules: newspapers with stakes in ITV channels will be restricted to minor holdings, and an "economic interest" up to 20 per cent. Meanwhile, BSkyB, the dominant pay satellite service, is free to bid as it chooses.

Jaspan arrives

To those still wondering whether Andrew Jaspan would in fact take up his job as editor of the Observer: he was spotted yesterday being introduced to people at the Guardian, which owns the Observer, by Peter Preston, editor in chief of both titles. At least that's settled, then.

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