A brand new vision for Woman's Hour: global money-maker

BBC plan to exploit programme's commercial potential angers purists
  • @iburrell

"Celebrating, informing and entertaining women", goes the catchphrase of one of BBC Radio 4's most admired shows, Woman's Hour.

Soon, it will be selling to women as well. The 66-year-old programme is to be developed as a commercial brand to maximise revenues for the cash-strapped broadcaster.

The editor of Woman's Hour, Alice Feinstein, has told staff she will be devoting a significant segment of her workload to developing commercial projects linked to the show, which was introduced to the BBC in 1946. She has asked its producers to submit money-making ideas.

Woman's Hour is hoping to develop the commercial value of its brand around key areas of expertise such as female entrepreneurialism, cookery and literature in order to sell tickets for roadshow events, books and DVDs. One area seen as having commercial potential is the show's "Cook The Perfect" feature, which offers culinary insights from leading chefs and celebrities such as Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden, Sophie Dahl and Mary McCartney.

The development follows an email sent to all 2,400 staff in the BBC Global News department telling them their ability to think of ways to "exploit new commercial opportunities" will form part of their job appraisals. The instructions to "strengthen our commercial focus and grow income" have angered journalists and are part of the increasing commercialisation of the BBC. Although the BBC has successfully exploited the international appeal of brands such as Doctor Who and Top Gear to supplement its income, products connected to Radio 4 are largely confined to its comedy and drama output, notably The Archers. The commercialisation of editorial parts of the schedule is more controversial.

Some producers are unhappy that they are being told to think up editorial ideas that will have saleable value. Michelle Stanistreet, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said: "It seems there are quiet attempts to introduce profit targets across the BBC. This is something that the unions and indeed the public have not been asked about. The pursuit of profit should not influence editorial decisions in our public service broadcaster. Woman's Hour is a fine example of quality journalism and should not be compromised by commercial imperatives."

Ms Feinstein is believed to have been encouraged to take a more commercial approach to running the programme by Tim Davie, the BBC's director of Audio & Music, who is among the candidates to become the next director general of the BBC.

She took up the job when long-standing editor Jill Burridge stepped down in December. She explained her new approach to developing Woman's Hour during a brainstorming "away day" session. She told producers she would divide her efforts between the radio programme, the Woman's Hour website and digital products, and developing commercial schemes linked to the show.

A Radio 4 spokeswoman said Ms Feinstein's priority remained the editorial content of Woman's Hour. "Editorial and programme making is the most important aspect of her job." She added that any commercial projects emerging from the programme would always be rooted in editorial content. "Commercial considerations play no part in decisions to commission programmes, nor do they influence the choice of items on programmes such as Woman's Hour."

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Top Gear

Audience Watched by 350 million worldwide each week and sold to more than 200 territories.

History Launched in 1997 as a straight motoring show; given a new tone in 2002.

Figurehead Brash, boorish Jeremy Clarkson, who earns a reported £1m a year from the BBC, plus £1.78m via Bedder6, the company set up to exploit the show's brand.

Known for Puerile pranks, dubious taste, coarse humour and sexism.

Earnings Generates around £41m a year through Bedder6, the great majority of which is returned to the BBC.

Woman's Hour

Audience Weekly reach of 3.5 million.

History First broadcast in 1946 on the BBC's Light Programme; moved to Radio 4 in 1973.

Figurehead Jenni Murray, earnest feminist and former Today programme presenter who joined Woman's Hour in 1987.

Known for Serious debate on work/life balance and cookery tips.

Earnings Previous commercial projects have been confined to two anniversary publications and a health book in the Nineties