Teatime with Auntie

BBC1 is a hit with pensioners and housewives, but has lost the gift to grab mass audiences, says William Phillips
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The Independent Online
BBC Television is dreaming of a whitewash Christmas. ITV does not compete strongly for Yuletide trade. The final fortnight of 1994 should give BBC1's family entertainment a ratings walkover, as in most festive seasons since 1955.

But the previous 50 weeks are another story. In its ordinary primetime schedules BBC1 tried and tried, and failed and failed. Not for at least a decade has the corporation hurled so much new comedy, drama and light entertainment into the fray, only to see it shot to bits. The year ends with the BBC publicly agonising about whether to continue with Seaforth, its gloomy Sunday night epic drama, which was supposed to pin the nation to its seats.

The two main channels' overall audience shares during peak hours have changed little since late 1992, but BBC1's stability is no thanks to the 40-odd new series with ratings potential that it has trotted out this year. If the BBC's viewing share throughout the day is running a shade above 1993's figure, it is entirely down to a big jump before 6pm on BBC1, and a modest gain after 6pm on BBC2.

The table lists the five strongest and weakest primetime newcomers in each popular programming category. It excludes series that were not meant to go beyond one run - a round of applause here for Tyne Tees's well-watched Catherine Cookson serials - and forlorn hopes pitched against invincible opposition such as Coronation Street. Competitive success is measured by audience share, so that seasonal ups and downs in television's total audience do not handicap a good summertime runner.

ITV has not stinted innovation: in the Network Centre's first full year, 29 new peaktime entertainment series appeared, the most since ITV was struggling to recover in 1990.

Some clicked instantly, such as LWT's kick-the-door-down Customs drama, The Knock, and its exhumation of Bruce Forsyth's Play Your Cards Right. Both these collared more than half of all viewers while they were on air.

ITV takes 11 of the table's best 15 series, including four of five dramas (its pride and joy), all light entertainment except the National Lottery draw and, less expectedly, three out of five situation comedies.

Yet the true basis of ITV's peaktime strength is its returning dramas, such as Soldier Soldier, Peak Practice, Heartbeat and Cracker: known quantities that acquire a larger following in second or subsequent years by recommendation. Moreover, most ITV drama dependables are produced not by inspired independents but in the old-fashioned way, by ITV licensees' staff. (The BBC this autumn admitted that too much of its high-cost drama was being made by independents, and is changing its policies along ITV line s.)

Popular drama is where BBC1 remained notoriously at sea during 1994. For 15 years it has failed to make middle-range, limited-run drama that starts strongly and stays popular. Even the major exception, Casualty, has faltered this autumn. Explanations arenot hard to find: unsympathetic characters; too much pandering to a politically correct agenda (for instance, Between the Lines instead of Bergerac); neglect of "family fireside" storytelling, as if the grim EastEnders and saccharine Neighbours sufficed.

Charles Denton, who presided over ITV's Inspector Morse at Zenith, was enlisted to put matters right. He declares that "new popular series for peak-time transmission" are his priority. Not much ground has been gained so far. Lynda La Plante's The Lifeboat, Tim Firth's All Quiet on the Preston Front and Peter Ransley's Seaforth, all angled at the provincial family audience, were disappointments to put beside the previous regime's Westbeach, Eldorado and Harry.

Apportioning responsibility justly is hard when projects need two or three years to gestate; how much is the modest success of BBC1's female private eyes in Chandler & Co or the dustbinmen of Common as Muck down to Denton, how much to his predecessor, Jonathan Powell? What is certain is that nearly all ITV drama remains streets ahead in ratings. Middlemarch or Martin Chuzzlewit wins the Golden Goat of San Remo; the swashbuckling Sharpe grabs the crowd.

BBC1 also tried hard to regenerate comedy, unrolling nine new sitcoms and reviving ITV's Men Behaving Badly. None fared as well as Jennifer Saunders's Absolutely Fabulous, transplanted from BBC2.

Dawn French, her partner, has scored with The Vicar of Dibley, but its audiences have tended to dwindle against the tide of autumn's upsurge in viewing. (So did BBC1's best-performing new sitcom of autumn 1993, Goodnight Sweetheart.)

Professional laughter-making is becoming a minority sport. Many who saw clips of nominees for ITV's British Comedy Awards on 4 December, such as Jo Brand and Steve Coogan, were setting eyes on them for the first time. ITV's most watched sitcom this year,Outside Edge, had an average viewing share. ITV will not premiere a sitcom between July and, at the earliest, next March - an unprecedented gap.

Both big channels tried to refurbish the comedy sketch show, a near-vacuum since the deaths of Benny Hill and Les Dawson. Russ Abbot moved back from BBC1 to ITV but cut little ice; Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis bombed on BBC1, struggling to adapt their material to pre-watershed standards. Harry Enfield and Chums, another switch from BBC2, is undergoing the same gradual slide as The Vicar of Dibley.

More than ever, light entertainment depends on what are technically known as "real people": the pratfallers of You've Been Framed! or scripted spontaneities of Blind Date.

This year has seen a pronounced turn towards spookiness and supernaturalism - (Mystic Meg on the lottery show) - in frivolous factual stuff such as Strange but True? or Schofield's Quest, an early Sunday evening vehicle for Philip Schofield which comes on like That's Life without the consumerist content.

The BBC fears for its dignity when devising people shows. It shuns the extremes of giveaway quizzes and "embarrassment" formats such as hypnotism. It flirts with the gender war - Chris Tarrant hosting The Opposite Sex - or the paranormal (a pilot programme called Out of This World) or its own gaffes (Auntie's Bloomers, but only once a year). Quizzes are weakened by quizzical presenters and titchy prizes. Personalities such as Jonathan Ross, Chris Tarrant and Danny Baker too often seem to jeer at their audience.

True, BBC1 hijacked This is Your Life, Aspel and all; but panel games such as Bygones, Home Truths or Pop Quiz were no match for the blazered sexagenarians commanding Play Your Cards Right, Celebrity Squares (Bob Monkhouse) or Des O'Connor Tonight. And BBC1 keeps too many oldies on life-support: following the agonisingly prolonged decline of That's Life and Jim'll Fix It, gangrene may be setting in at Crimewatch UK, Birds of a Feather, Big Break and A Question of Sport, but they are refused euthanasia.

Only 11 of BBC1's 40 newcomers took viewing shares at least as high as its average for the night and season when these novices went out. ITV did the trick for 15 of its 29 newcomers. ITV's total peaktime share is barely above 1993's, but it generates programmes to refresh its output far more smoothly than BBC1.

Where the corporation does hit ITV hard is between midday news and late afternoon children's television. ITV's audience share before 6pm has dropped from 38.4 to 37.1 per cent in 1994. Andy Allan of Carlton was careful to indict everybody's daytime programming for being bland, dull and imitative; but the beam is in his own network's eye.

Capturing housewives and pensioners between lunch and tea may console the BBC a little for what - measuring the inventive effort applied - has been little better than an annus horribilis in peak hours.