BBC1 and BBC2 are too similar, while BBC4 needs to do more to raise its profile, the BBC Trust said yesterday after a review of the output of the channels.
The corporation's governing body told channel controllers that it expected to see an improvement in performance by the end of next year.
The review found that BBC1, which has been performing well in audience ratings, needed to be more ambitious and risk-taking. "It should actively seek to increase the level of range, variety and surprise in pre-watershed peak time, and show greater creative ambition at 9pm," said the Trust. "We would expect to see signs of improvement in audience perceptions by the end of 2011."
BBC2 needed to be more distinctive from the flagship channel, argued the governing body, which was critical of the quality of the daytime output of the two channels. "[BBC2's] aim should be to re-establish its position as a channel which audiences recognise as being manifestly different to BBC1."
The average person in the UK watches 5 hours 29 minutes a week of BBC1 programming, though the number of different shows on the channel between 7pm and 9pm has fallen from 115 to 61 between 2005 and 2009 as it has concentrated on popular formats such as Strictly Come Dancing.
The Trust said that Janice Hadlow, controller of BBC2, should not be afraid of losing audience as she tried to make her channel more distinctive. "BBC2 should ensure it provides something which audiences recognise as being manifestly different from BBC1, even at the risk that BBC2's reach may fall."
The review examined the strength of the news and current affairs output on the three channels, highlighting the declining ratings for BBC2's Newsnight, which has seen its audience fall by 20 per cent since 2004, while noting the growing reach for BBC1 programmes Question Time and This Week.
The BBC's leading current affairs strand Panorama had a mixed report. The review noted that the switch to a 30-minute slot on Monday nights had resulted in an increased audience reach, though some of that ground has since been lost.
The Trust said: "BBC management is exploring the possibility of slightly reducing the number of episodes of Panorama while retaining current levels of investment in the programme in order to give production teams greater space to develop investigations."
It also called on BBC1 to produce more one-off documentaries, citing the high audience approval ratings for Wounded, a programme about the rehabilitation journey of two soldiers.
The Trust called on BBC4, a channel that is loved by the chattering classes for its strong documentaries and arts coverage, to "achieve greater impact", including raising the profile of its world news coverage.
The review was supported by audience research which was broadly supportive of the BBC output. Some 44 per cent of viewers approved highly of BBC1, compared to 13 per cent who gave it a low rating. Some 65 per cent of respondents said the channel represented good value for money. BBC2 fared better, with 44 per cent giving it high approval scores, compared to 7 per cent who disapproved of its output, with 74 per cent saying they "learned new things" while watching the channel.
But BBC4 scored only 27 per cent high approvals, with 20 per cent of respondents giving it a low rating. "BBC4's approach is to focus in depth on relatively specialist areas of interest that may not have mainstream appeal," said the report. "Viewers are more likely to be male, aged older than 35 and of a higher social grade."
Singled out for praise – or criticism
Bang Goes the Theory
The BBC1 science strand that was picked out by the BBC Trust as too rare an example of "new and ambitious" programming in peak time.
The Trust complained that BBC2's current affairs programming has lacked impact in "key areas such as foreign affairs and business, economics and finance". It noted that audiences had fallen by 20 per cent since 2004.
The long-running format was cited as an example of a show that was increasing its reach, but the Trust said that viewing of British current affairs was in decline.
The Trust said Panorama should remain the flagship format, but said it had lost reach and should do more long investigations. It applauded plans to reduce the number of shows but maintain funding to provide greater resources.