The news move is just the beginning

A whole raft of changes is under way in the BBC schedules. If you thought moving the news was radical, you ain't seen nothing yet, says the corporation's director of television, Mark Thompson
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What lessons can be learnt from the first month of the BBC's new schedule? We have had 20 week-day editions of the 10 o'clock news so far. We should not read too much into the first few weeks, however; the success or failure of the "Ten" will emerge over years, not months, just as the decline of the "Nine" emerged over years rather than months. But there were some people who said that the Ten was doomed to fail from the start; because there is a smaller total available audience at 10 o'clock than at nine, the new programme was bound to get a smaller audience from day one. We can certainly see whether they were right or wrong.

What lessons can be learnt from the first month of the BBC's new schedule? We have had 20 week-day editions of the 10 o'clock news so far. We should not read too much into the first few weeks, however; the success or failure of the "Ten" will emerge over years, not months, just as the decline of the "Nine" emerged over years rather than months. But there were some people who said that the Ten was doomed to fail from the start; because there is a smaller total available audience at 10 o'clock than at nine, the new programme was bound to get a smaller audience from day one. We can certainly see whether they were right or wrong.

So, what has happened? In 1999, the nine o'clock news in these weeks achieved an average audience of 4.9 million people. If you factor in that average year-on-year decline in the Nine's audiences - of 300,000 - we could reasonably have expected 4.6 million people to watch the Nine in the same four weeks this year.

What has actually happened is that 5.3 million people have watched the new Ten; in other words, 700,000 more than our benchmark for the Nine, and nearly half a million more than the actual figures for the Nine a year ago. Over the past four weeks, then, far from damaging news audiences, the move has brought significant numbers of people back to our flagship news programme. The move of the news has grown audiences for news programmes across BBC 1 and ITV. That is why I think the ITC should think long and hard about the placement of ITV's main evening news. Will an ITV nightly news that runs, some nights, head to head with the 10 o'clock news really deliver better cross-channel news audiences than those we have seen in the past month? Unless the ITC is confident that it will, then despite the deal it has patched up - and despite the intense political pressure on it - I believe it should have the courage to put the interests of viewers first and think again.

The move of the news is only one part of a wider restructuring of the BBC 1 schedule. There are those who say that the channel is losing its public-service soul; that it is discarding serious and distinctive output and replacing it with game shows and movies; that it is starting a ratings arms race with ITV that can only damage British television.

That is simply not true. If there is one point that I would like to get across, it is that we know BBC 1 can only succeed if it stays true to its public service mission. BBC 1 is not going to be dominated by game shows: there are fewer game shows or quiz shows in the schedule than there were 10 or 20 years ago - and that is the way it will stay. We are not going to push serious factual programmes out of peak; there will be fewer docusoaps and makeover shows in peak than in recent years.

The new schedule actually enables us to showcase ambitious documentaries more effectively. This week, for instance, David Attenborough's passionate trilogy about modern man's impact on nature, State of the Planet, begins at nine o'clock on Wednesdays. Robert Winston's science series, Superhuman, is currently playing successfully on Sundays, again at nine. Neither of those programmes is in the schedules because it is a ratings-winner - that is not what they are about. It is interesting, though, that neither would have had the same prominence in the old schedule - and Superhuman has been delivering bigger audiences where it is than we could have brought to it in one of the old 9.30 mid-week slots.

One reads that the changes to the BBC 1 schedule and our wider plans for BBC television are part of a conscious conspiracy - a conspiracy to pursue ratings at any cost, or to lower standards, or to turn the British public into vegetables. In my opinion, that's just mad. What possible reason could any of us have for working for the BBC if that was our motivation? Does anyone seriously think that we have secret meetings in the BBC where we sit down like Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers and go through all the programme ideas, weeding out the good ones?

The cynics say that when we talk about changing public service, we actually mean delivering less of it, but that is not true either. Take science on BBC 1. If the cynics were right, we would now abandon science documentaries on the channel altogether and replace them with movies or game shows. Now what is interesting is that the pattern of science documentary on BBC 1 has changed. The traditional way of delivering serious subjects such as science on BBC has been with strand programmes that tackle a different subject every week. The science strand programme was QED. It was brilliant in its heyday, but it is very hard for strand documentary programmes to punch through week after week on majority channels such as BBC 1, and QED found it harder and harder to make its mark - and by its mark, I am not talking about crude audience figures, but about its ability to be noticed at all, its ability to find its own natural audience. We tried to help it by giving it a name of wider recognition, but ultimately it is the idea of the strand that no longer works.

But that was not the end of science documentary on BBC 1. What has replaced the notion of a strand has been the impact of a chain of imaginative and eye-catching science series beginning with The Human Body and Walking with Dinosaurs. The channel's peak-time audience is up year-on-year, and so is its all-hours audience. ITV's peak-time and all-hours audiences, by the way, are down. ITV has been losing peak-time and all-hours audiences at twice the rate of BBC 1 all year. As far as BBC 1 is concerned, we know we have much more to do. We need more strength in drama and comedy, especially in the middle of week.

We need to create compelling plans for arts and religion on the channel. And we need to monitor the success of Panorama in its new slot on Sunday nights. Panorama is one of the channel's most important programmes, and we want it to thrive in the new schedule. If the current Sunday slot proves unsatisfactory, we will look for other solutions.

The enemies of public service broadcasting in Britain often argue that it is not necessary anymore, that the market alone will provide sufficient choice, as it does, say, in the world of publishing. Anyone tempted to take that argument seriously, should look at the reality of the way in which television is developing in this country. Is this really a market in which a thousand different commercial flowers are allowed to bloom? Or is it rather something of a closed shop, in which an increasingly small number of increasingly powerful players seek to corner a series of markets? The market in mass TV advertising. The market in sports rights.

One of the best arguments for sustaining a big public-service broadcaster is because it is only by being big that the BBC can go on making a difference in this market. That, of course, is why it makes these powerful players so uncomfortable.

Mark Thompson is BBC director of television. He spoke to the Royal Television Society last night

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