Tie the BBC down, sport: can ratings and respect ever mix?

Damned if she's 'dumb', damned if no one watches, the head of BBC 1, Lorraine Heggessey, talks piazzas with Jane Robins
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Do you recognise this place? "I see it as a fun-filled Italian piazza. All around is classic architecture and great heritage. But the square is buzzing with animated people, dressed at the height of fashion, who have just come from the opera."

Covent Garden? A new shopping centre in Chichester? Or BBC 1 according to its controller, Lorraine Heggessey?

Yes. It's BBC 1. The glamorous image may be hard to square with Pauline Fowler, Jim Davidson's Generation Game and Charlie Dimmock swinging from a trapeze. And it does not fit easily with a recent barrage of complaints characterising the channel as dumbed-down, derivative and obsessed with ratings. But Heggessey sees things differently.

The assault began in August when ITV's director of programmes, David Liddiment, accused the BBC of filling its schedules with Holby City, Casualty and EastEnders. The BBC, he argued, still made landmark programmes such as Walking with Dinosaurs, but these were "fig leaves preserving the decency of a nakedly commercial beast".

Last month Lord Bragg weighed in, criticising BBC 1 for a "dereliction of duty" by showing only one arts documentary so far this year, compared with 15 on ITV. He appealed to Heggessey directly: "I would say to Lorraine, it is not too difficult to pile on editions of EastEnders. Why don't you make a real name for yourself by being the person who brings back arts documentaries?"

Heggessey retaliates with quick-fire talk of the excellent arts programmes coming up on BBC 1, citing the Blue Peter book awards for children and a series about the Impressionists to be presented by Rolf Harris – which is probably not what Bragg has in mind. At the same time, she has asked BBC executives to speed up the development of a three-programme series on Leonardo da Vinci (very Italian piazza).

Then it was the turn of the BBC's new chairman, Gavyn Davies. He said publicly that BBC 1 carries too many make-over programmes, such as Changing Rooms, describing the genre as a "cheapening" influence. Heggessey confirms that she has now written to the millionaire economist (whose second home once featured in the property section of an upmarket glossy) explaining that "makeover shows have a place in the peak BBC schedule", and adding that "he agrees".

Of the schedule overall she proclaims: "I do feel it's working. I don't think I'm living in a fool's paradise."

In private, BBC producers point to a vast difference between Heggessey's inspirational rhetoric and a schedule dominated by fare such as The Weakest Link, Dog Eat Dog and Celebrity Sleepover – a mix only occasionally relieved by landmark successes such as David Attenborough's The Blue Planet.

Heggessey could be forgiven for feeling bruised. Instead, one year into the job, she is relentlessly upbeat and on a mission to modernise the "style and tone" of the channel. That seems to imply more work for Rolf Harris, and a less formal approach to the death of the Queen Mother, should it happen on her watch. It also means importing the Kathy Burke sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme from BBC 2 and commissioning a new comedy about parents who bring up a disabled child, starring Jasper Carrott and Meera Syal.

She also asserts that BBC 1 is passionate about history, art, culture and religion. She says she envisages more "reviving history" programmes that use computer graphics to bring the past alive. "Specialist factual programming", she concludes, "is the unique selling point of BBC 1."

Heggessey says she is committed to as broad a range of programmes on BBC 1 as ever. But this assertion is questioned by many critics, in the industry and in government, who suspect that in practice BBC 1 is narrowing the focus of its programming. "Five years ago, BBC 1 carried a prime time documentary on the political situation in China six years after Tiananmen Square," says a current affairs producer. "It is almost impossible to imagine such a programme being shown now."

"There is practically no arts on BBC 1, Omnibus has been moved to BBC 2 and Panorama has been shifted to late on Sunday night," says an ITV programme maker. "The sadness is that the space created has been filled up with endless amounts of EastEnders."

Heggessey seems caught between two conflicting visions for BBC 1. The first was outlined last year by her boss, Mark Thompson, the BBC's director of television. He suggested that the future health, or even the survival, of the BBC depended on a move to "genre-based" channels. BBC 1, he said, should become more focused on popular drama and entertainment. He backed up his argument with research showing that changes in technology will cause a breakdown in channel loyalty as people flick from pro- gramme to programme.

It would be impossible, he added, for a channel to "deliver audiences from a popular programme to a more uplifting one" – a Reithian notion that has, until now, been at the heart of the BBC's interpretation of its public service mission.

Since then, however, the political climate has changed. A troubled ITV is angry with BBC 1 for chasing ratings rather than concentrating on producing original and innovative programmes.

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has repeatedly made it clear that she wants to see a good mix of programmes on both BBC 1 and BBC 2, and now Gavyn Davies has proclaimed that he too believes in a mixed schedule.

Publicly, the BBC says it believed in an old-fashioned mixed schedule all along. But cynics wonder if Heggessey has, behind the scenes, been charged with the impossible task of maximising ratings with a schedule of entertainment, entertainment, entertainment, while sneaking in enough current affairs, history and arts to silence the likes of Melvyn Bragg.

Much now depends on the success, or otherwise, of Rolf Harris's programme on the Impressionists. If it manages to confound chattering-class logic and truly brings art to the masses, it will be a great triumph for Heggessey on all fronts. If not, then yet another strategy group might have to be convened to work out what, in practice, BBC 1 is all about.