Why Wyatt?

Drastic restructuring is the BBC's response to multi-channel digital competition. And in charge of a mega, newly merged television and radio unit with a pounds 1.5bn budget is Will Wyatt. But might that be because he is one of John Birt's blue-eyed boys? By Rob Brown
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The Independent Online
Tomorrow is April Fool's Day. Not, you might think, the wisest time for any institution to proclaim that it is entering a brave new era. But that didn't stop the BBC's ever-tactful director-general, John Birt, deciding that 1 April 1997 should be the day when the most drastic restructuring in the corporation's history formally takes effect.

The biggest winner in the reshuffle is Will Wyatt. After more than three decades on Auntie's payroll, he has, in effect, become the man with the biggest chequebook in British broadcasting. He is chief executive of BBC Broadcast, the directorate that commands a budget of almost pounds 1.5bn and is now responsible for commissioning and scheduling all the BBC's output on both radio and television. This urbane former documentary-maker will from today oversee everything, apart from news programmes, that Auntie serves up to viewers and listeners from the Shetlands to Cornwall.

Why Wyatt? Or, as some on the BBC's staff, would express the question: why, oh why, Wyatt?

As you may have gleaned by now, the biggest chequebook in British broadcasting cannot buy universal popularity or even respect within the corridors of Broadcasting House and Television Centre. Wyatt is, in the opinion of his more scathing subordinates, "one of them", an apparatchik whose advancement can be explained purely by the fact that he is the DG's most obedient lieutenant and most zealous cost-cutter.

Certainly he is fluent in Birtspeak and a constant defender of the permanent revolution over which his master has presided. When gently asked about his boss's sense of timing, he replies: "We introduced 'producer choice' on an April Fool's Day and that's worked out rather well, hasn't it?"

No mention is made of the prolonged warfare that followed the imposition of that internal market. Tomorrow is the first day of "year zero" at the British Broadcasting Corporation and the past is another country. For the whole idea behind the "structure for the digital age" is that the BBC cannot dwell in the past. It must operate in a wholly new way if it is to survive in a multi-channel digital universe and persuade the Great British public to go on stumping up their annual licence fee when its current 10-year charter expires in 2007.

Wyatt maintains that the creation of a unified scheduling and commissioning structure for radio and TV won't just lead to zealous cost-cutting but will enable the corporation to create and promote a succession of big pan-BBC projects that "will have a truly unifying national appeal".

This is about the future of British society, apparently, not just the destiny of the BBC. The past two years have shown just how important the role of broadcasting can be, says Wyatt, citing coverage of VE and VJ Day, Pride and Prejudice, EastEnders and coverage of the Euro 96 football tournament as events that have brought the nation either in commemoration and remembrance or gripped its collective imagination.

"Those events aren't just the subject of everyday conversation, important though that is," he has argued. "They help to provide the nation with its pub and club topics and corner-shop issues, at a time of ever greater insecurity and change." Lose the broadcaster's national role and "an information underclass may emerge".

Passionate and compassionate stuff you might think, though not particularly in the way Wyatt says it; from him they sound like pronouncements from a well-educated head rather than the heart. He might sound a little more convincing if he hadn't spent virtually his entire half century on this planet living and working in the affluent and self-regarding Oxbridge- London triangle.

Will Wyatt, now 55, was born in Oxford and studied history at Cambridge. He then trained as a reporter on the Sheffield Morning Telegraph - the only time he has ever been based outside the South-east - before joining BBC Radio News as a sub-editor in 1965.

He moved to television production three years later and steadily worked his way up the programme-making ranks thereafter. He majored in factual programmes, overseeing a range of documentary features before becoming managing director of Network Television in 1991.

An entire broadcasting career, then, spent in the metropolis, virtually all of it in television. Naturally, this has heightened suspicions in the radio side of the BBC that they will be underconsidered.

"There was a bit of insensitivity towards radio at the start," Wyatt acknowledges. "But I started my broadcasting career in radio and I'm going to make sure radio isn't messed about or badly treated."

If it were, Wyatt would hear about it soon enough. As part of the restructuring, he has been relocated from Television Centre in Shepherd's Bush to Broadcasting House, the hub of BBC's five radio networks situated near Oxford Circus. This means he will be geographically separated from Television Centre - home of BBC Production and the directorate from which BBC Broadcast will be ordering the vast bulk of its output.

Some high-ups at Television Centre glumly suspect that they have lost out in the power stakes to Wyatt and his calculator-wielding colleagues. There is no doubt that the decision to split the commissioning and producing of programmes could well lead to tensions that are anything but creative.

Producers used to be all-powerful in the BBC; those days are well and truly past.

"Broadcast's job is to have the best understanding of what the people of these islands want and require from the BBC and then engage in a dialogue with producers and directors," says Wyatt.

"It used to be a much more producer-driven world and a lot of wonderful things used to be made in it. But in the 30 years I've been with the BBC, there have been some absolute turkeys, I can tell you."

On a more conciliatory note, Wyatt concedes that the new "structure for a digital age" contains several inherent dangers. "It would be dangerous if BBC Broadcast and BBC Production allowed themselves to drift apart or not really understand the needs and requirement of the others," he acknowledges.

"There would also be a danger if key talent felt it was a step further away from the decision-making process. After all, where would we be without our programme-makers? We can come up with all the brilliant strategies we like, but if we cannot communicate them to producers and inspire them, then we're dead."

Perhaps nobody was more distressed by Birt's announcement of his Brave New World than Alan Yentob, the former BBC1 controller re-designated director of programmes. Although the corporate line is that Yentob is to be the creative leader of all television and radio production for the BBC networks, the talk of the trade is that he is praying he'll succeed Michael Grade as the next chief executive of Channel 4.

If Yentob is yearning for a quick escape into the commercial sector, he could be sorely disappointed. A stronger bet in the Channel 4 leadership stakes might well be young Michael Jackson, who emerged as one of the major winners in Birt's reshuffle. Indeed, as director of television and BBC1 controller, Jackson is now combining roles that used to be split between Yentob and Wyatt in his previous post as managing director of Network TV.

Having invested so much faith in this rising managerial star, wouldn't the radically restructured BBC be gravely weakened if Jackson were to defect to Channel 4? Wyatt refuses to be drawn into hypothetical speculation. "I've heard enough industry gossip over 30 years in this industry which has proved utterly false that I now know not to get my knickers in a twist," he retorts.

But the six years Wyatt has just spent as head of Network Television should have taught him how drastically fortunes can fluctuate in the broadcasting business. His first years in that post were marked by much gloom as the BBC struggled in the ratings. But its two national TV networks (BBC1 and 2) have enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years, raising their share of all viewing to 43.4 per cent in 1995-6.

"Our audience share has gone up and we've been winning more and more awards," Wyatt rhapsodises. But even his admirers - and there are some - would only credit him with creating a stable and clear context in which others, notably Yentob and Jackson, could work their creative magic.

If either or both of these figures leaves, even the biggest chequebook in broadcasting may not be enough to replace themn

The BBC's magnificent seven

From tomorrow these men will

determine the corporation's destiny in the digital age ...

Sir Christopher Bland


John Birt


Bob Phyllis

Chief Executive of Worldwide and deputy DG

Will Wyatt

Chief Executive of Broadcast

Ron Neil

Chief Executive of Production

Tony Hall

Chief Executive of News

Rod Lynch

Chief Executive of Resources