'South Bank' under threat as ITV's revenue streams run dry

Broadcaster's flagship arts programme could lose out to 'The X Factor'. Matthew Bell reports

It would be a curious irony if Michael Grade, the man who commissioned the first episode of The South Bank Show in 1978, were now, as chairman of ITV, to preside over its demise. Since its inception it has been the pre-eminent arts show of its kind, a beacon in a schedule swamped by talent contests and soaps. But in the wake of the troubled broadcaster's dismal annual results, published last week, fears for the future of the Sunday night slot are emerging as the channel seeks to shave £65m off its £1bn budget.

A 41 per cent slump in profits last year has prompted ITV to give priority to shows such as The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, leaving those like The South Bank Show at risk. Its budget has already been trimmed and the number of episodes a year reduced from 22 to 18; this is now likely to be cut further. The number of researchers has been cut, and there is even a rumour, denied by ITV, that the show may be shortened from one hour to 30 minutes.

While change of some kind seems inevitable, anything drastic is certain to meet resistance from the show's perennial presenter, Melvyn Bragg, who has defended the programme from previous threats and strongly believes in its public service role. Since becoming a peer in 1998, Lord Bragg has been a vocal champion of ITV in the House of Lords, and is seen as one of Brtiain's leading cultural ambassadors. It is perhaps a measure of the crisis then that Bragg resolved to keep silent when approached by this newspaper, saying: "Michael Grade and John Cresswell [ITV's chief operating officer] hold the total information necessary for a proper interview. I'm leaving it at that."

One can only imagine how Lord Bragg, 69, must feel about the threats to the show he has been wedded to for 31 years, although it's not too hard to guess. In 2006 he made an impassioned speech in the Lords calling for immediate action to restructure ITV and Channel 4 to help them face what he called the "hydra-headed" new world of commercial TV, where ever greater numbers of channels vie for a dwindling advertising market.

"If, or when, [public service broadcasting] on ITV shrinks, the British public will be deprived of a fecund resource which has stayed faithful to the seriousness of programmes in so many outstanding areas for more than 50 years," he said. "A tradition will be lost and the BBC will be gravely unbalanced, and all for the want of nailing the problem now."

With that time now at hand, Lord Bragg is resisting the urge to say "I told you so." Only the BBC, funded by the licence fee, remains immune to the massive drop in advertising revenue experienced by all commercial broadcasters. Last week ITV announced 600 job cuts and Channel 5 will be reducing its workforce by a quarter.

Although unable to give details, an ITV spokesman says: "The main thing is that viewers will not notice a discernable difference. We are concentrating now on better stock management, which means concentrating on peak schedules."

Kim Evans, a former producer on the show, says that no matter how attached Bragg and Grade may be to it, the hard maths could force the South Bank Show's demise. "What's scary is that if ITV is prepared to cut back on some of its most powerful dramas, it means they are prepared to do anything." Broadcaster Joan Bakewell is similarly fearful: "There needs to be moral courage on the part of the regulator and the DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] to make sure it is saved, as it is such a valuable contribution to public broadcasting, regardless of viewing figures and schedule timing. It is a national institution of huge public importance."

A glimpse at recent episodes reveals the breadth of the South Bank Show's range: St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre one week, Will Young the next, followed by urban pop group The Streets. It is an eclectic mix missing from the rest of ITV's output, which some say is partly to blame for its problems. "Arts programmes are under threat because ITV has been so badly mismanaged and got itself into this mess long before the economic downturn," says Margy Kinmonth, an independent director who has made several episodes of The South Bank Show. "Melvyn has always supported the work of directors. We independents really need that kind of patronage of the arts."

Cuts are nothing new across arts broadcasting. "It is easy for people in the arts to sound shrill," says Tim Marlow, an art historian and broadcaster whose own arts programme on Channel Five was eventually axed, "but The South Bank Show has long been a jewel in the crown of British television. I would be incredibly surprised if it were to go, but if anyone can help save a TV programme it's Melvyn."