Too many BBC repeats and soaps, says Smith

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The Independent Online

Greg Dyke has been told to spice up BBC 1's spring schedules, including family favourites such as Groundforce, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport revealed yesterday.

Mr Dyke, the new BBC director general, was told by Mr Smith at a meeting five days ago to make the spring and summer programming more exciting. The usual crop of repeats, old soaps and Hollywood movies are a turn off, Mr Smith told him.

Charlie Dimmock's gardening series might grab more viewers than most gardening programmes, but according to Whitehall sources, Mr Smith wants to see more "humdingers" such as Walking with Dinosaurs, the BBC's multi-million pound computer animated documentary, this summer.

"Programmes like Groundforce are all very well, but the BBC needs to produce more high standard programmes like Walking with Dinosaurs," a ministerial source said.

The implied criticism from officials of a Labour government might surprise the Groundforce team, which included the former South African president Nelson Mandela in one of its highly popular garden make-overs.

Mr Smith is attempting to reverse the tradition followed by most broadcasters of screening repeats in the spring when most viewers are outside mowing the lawn. Addressing a Westminster luncheon yesterday he revealed that he had told Mr Dyke at their meeting last week that last year's BBC 1 programmes improved dramatically as soon as the autumn schedules were brought in.

In addition to Walking with Dinosaurs, Mr Smith's favourites included the hit comedy The Royle Family, Warriors, and Wives and Daughters. "These were programmes that identified in many ways the best of broadcasting talent in this country - ranging from extremely witty comedy to documentary and drama of sometimes a very troubling and challenging type but none the less compelling viewing. The quality of that autumn viewing I want to see the norm rather than the exception for the BBC."

He welcomed Mr Dyke's decision to take an axe to the bureaucracy of the BBC, but claimed to have been responsible for the move. "It is something we specifically asked him to do when we set the funding settlement in place for the BBC and I think he has made a very good start in doing that."

He added: "I also want him to devote more resources and attention to the quality of BBC 1. This is an area where the Government cannot and should not dictate to the BBC. But we can urge and it is something I would certainly urge him to do."

The spring schedules were "not particularly exciting" and he told Mr Dyke that "with the new resources available to them and the extra resources they are generating themselves", he believed the BBC should be able to make the autumn quality "the norm".

He also dropped a big hint to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) to bring back News at Ten on ITV when they meet next month. "They will be reviewing the matter when the 12 months [of the rescheduling] is up and will be considering carefully whether the commitment that ITV made when they were allowed to make the shift has been upheld or not," he said. "I specifically asked the ITC to be rigorous and impartial in the way they approach that exercise and I am sure they will be."