The BBC's fallen giant of current affairs is back in a prime-time slot. But Tom Mangold, who helped put it there, warns that if it fails to pull in the viewers, its credits will roll for the last time
Sunday 23 July 2006
So they dragged the condemned prisoner off his death-row cell bed, unfastened his chains, gave him a new suit, and steered him somewhat unsteadily into the light of the BBC's Last Chance Saloon. There they stuck a warm shandy in his hands and, as he blinked in astonishment, announced that he had been reprieved - but this time - for the very last time.
So that's the deal. When the revived 30-minute Panorama, rescued last week from certain death in its dead-end graveyard slot on Sunday nights, appears in prime-time Monday evening segments next January, it simply must deliver or, this time, it really is the end. No kidding.
The current affairs programme was once the pride of the whole Corporation. Launched in 1953, it is the longest running public affairs programme in the world, woven into the very fabric of the BBC.
At one time presented by the legendary Richard, head of the Dimbleby dynasty, it became noted for the rigour of its reporting and its ability to break out of the suffocating BBC news mould, and run free with its long, carefully researched and informative programmes. It had intellect, wit, class and achieved totemic status using the talents ofCharles Wheeler, Robert Mossman, Robin Day, Kenneth Allsop, and later Julian Pettifer and Jeremy Paxman.
But the arrival of John Birt as the BBC's director-general brought an effective end to the relative independence, irreverence and freedom that hallmarked the programme. Birt's pre-packaged, in-the-office journalism, his minions' relentless editorial control and their deep collective mistrust of reporters who dared work empirically rather than to pre-scripted formulae, led to the famous "Year Zero" revolution at the BBC which included a staff pogrom on Panorama from which the programme never quite recovered. At one stage, Birt wanted every single Panorama reporter fired. When the hapless editor pointed out there would be no-one to make the programmes, Birt said airily - "Use the writers from The Spectator", which was a little bit like encouraging your Ford Escort suburban commuter to spend the weekend belting round Silverstone against Schumacher.
And so the programme began to grow mildew. It seemed incapable of doing what Fleet Street does so well; changing its layout, recalibrating, identifying changing audience demands, introducing new formats, looking brighter and fresher. BBC editorial managers responded to all suggestions of radical change with "it wouldn't be Panorama any more", which was a bit like recommending extra rivets be added to the vessel and being told: "But it wouldn't be the Titanic."
Slowly, Panorama began to lose its audience, its enthusiasms, its sparkle and much of its talent. On one occasion a few years ago only two people bothered to apply for the vacancy of editor.
A Gadarene rush by the BBC for audience popularity, hugely encouraged by Greg Dyke, the new DG, and Lorraine Heggessey, controller of BBC1, led to the scheduling disaster as Panorama, without consultation or warning, was pushed into the notorious Sunday graveyard slot of 10.15pm. That meant complex editorial issues were still being concluded on air at 11.00pm, a time when the average Panorama viewer was fast, fast asleep. But in the age of the lifestyle and quiz shows, soaps, "access" documentaries and endless repeats, and never-ending police and hospital series, current affairs was no longer fashionable. Commitment to news analysis was "naff". Ratings were the new God. Few BBC managers would find work outside the Beeb if their CVs failed to show they had pushed audience figures up and up. Who in the harsh world of commercial TV would praise a former BBC exec who had maintained the integrity of Panorama, at the cost of prime-time audience figures? Anyway, there was always good old Newsnight over on BBC2, still chuntering away to empty drawing rooms round about midnight.
Only last year, during a consultation exercise for the BBC Board of Governors, Steve Anderson, former head of ITV news and current affairs and now a senior executive in the independent sector, warned Beeb worthies that ITV was transmitting more current affairs in peak time than the BBC, an unsustainable position for the world's biggest public service broadcasting organisation. The Board was shocked.
Meanwhile, I was persistently and publicly attacking the BBC (right up to a month ago) for what it had done to my alma mater. This was not, to misquote Birt, an old soldier polishing his medals with tears in his rheumy eyes, but an innate sense of the injustice of the crass populism Dyke and Heggessey had inflicted on mainstream television at the expense of the BBC's commitment to inform and to educate.
There were other problems too. The sensational interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, by Martin Bashir in November 1995 had 23 million viewers. (Today, that figure hovers around 2 million). We failed to recover from that adrenalin rush and the management failed to understand that these are once-in-a-lifetime events.
But it was only after Dyke quit, following the Hutton debacle, Heggessey moved out, and the last lacklustre editor of Panorama took voluntary redundancy recently, that the BBC, strongly influenced by new controller Peter Fincham and new current affairs boss George Entwistle, finally found the courage to unlock the condemned cell and lead Panorama back into the light.
But it has had its eight lives. The talented reporter John Ware (the only reporter whose future is guaranteed on the new show) has already opined his fears of the programme dumbing down to please its masters and justify the high-profile slot. It is true that senior BBC executives have told me they expect the prime-time revival to draw an audience of between 3 and 4 million, but they insist that Panorama must and will retain its high standards. It will court popularity but not populism, and losing 10 minutes will make the programme more astringent, less waffly and far more focused in the iPod age. The accent will return to strong narrative and story-telling, while the inevitable loss of some of its dead wood can only help. And it will remain a single-subject programme.
One senior Panorama person is overjoyed at the changes. "It's come up three bells," he told me, grinning. "We've got the right slot, we're on all year, we keep our specials, and we'll have eight independent productions a year to keep us fresh."
Personally, I believe Panorama needs to attract and show off the BBC's best but under-used reporting talent. Despite inevitable turf battles between news and current affairs, crowd pullers such as the brilliant political editor Nick Robinson, his predecessor Andrew Marr, Jeremy Bowen in the Middle East, special news correspondent Gavin Hewitt, at his seasoned best, and Matt Frei, bureau chief in Washington, should be invited to contribute their skills to long-form journalism.
I'm assured Panorama will now try to be more reactive to the big immediate stories (it has a lamentable record on Middle East and American political coverage) and will even consider broadening its agenda to include more sport, showbusiness and occasional big single-subject interviews. There will be fewer programmes based on its most recent predictable agenda, which took the easy route to cover stories about losers, the National Health Service, and people dying of unusual and horrible diseases.
"We are highly conscious that the programme now has to appeal to a broad spectrum BBC1 peak-time audience," one executive admitted. "It can no longer feel safe in the darkness of its old slot ... We need to out-think the opposition, [and] wreak havoc on Channel 4's Dispatches." But would the revived Panorama have run, as did Sky, a long interview with Kylie Minogue about her fight with breast cancer ? "Er...no."
It won't be easy. Panorama is back where it belongs, but it's up against Coronation Street and Dispatches. It is almost impossible to hurt the ITV soap, which gets some 9 million viewers, and Channel 4's current affairs track record is superb. But the new editor, Sandy Smith, has a strong current affairs reputation as a film-maker, a good track record, and is known as a collegiate team player. He knows he has to reshape his team from top to bottom, go mainstream, take bigger risks and convince Britain that BBC current affairs has something to say to a large, wide-awake and selective audience.
One has to admire the Beeb for finally admitting the huge scheduling gaffe that brought Panorama to the edge of extinction. The conspiracy to marginalise this important and significant show based on the political cowardice to kill it off completely has been exposed, and I for one applaud the decision to place this great programme back on centre stage and in the spotlight. Its many friends will wish it every success.
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