Serial killers stalk TV land

Birt says BBC's flagship dramas are costly failure
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The BBC has taken the unusual step of criticising two of its own flagship dramas - as "expensive failures" and "disappointing" - in its annual report to Parliament.

John Birt, the director general of the BBC, picked out for particular criticism the pounds 10m nine-hour dramatisation of the life of Cecil Rhodes. He also pinpointed the equally expensive costume drama adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo as a failure.

"Just when it was tempting to forecast a new dawn for our drama, along came Nostromo and Rhodes," he said. "We do need to improve our consistency."

Both series saw their ratings dive after the first episode, despite big names such as Martin Shaw in Rhodes, and Colin Firth, star of Pride and Prejudice, in Nostromo.

The failures are particularly pointed because the repeat of Pride and Prejudice, shown last Sunday, proved a success by drawing 6 million viewers. BBC bosses anticipate even better ratings for this coming Sunday's episode featuring the famous scene with Firth as Mr Darcy in wet breeches.

Confidence in BBC drama output was not helped by the fact that, for a year, the corporation could not find anyone to head up the department. Last month it appointed Colin Adams, BBC Northern broadcasting head, to look after drama. Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast, said the self-criticism was about honesty: "It is about owning up when we fail. It doesn't mean we have abandoned the right to fail."

Mr Birt also indicated that he was unhappy with the programmes targeted at a mass audience on BBC1. "BBC2 continues to innovate," he said, "with The Fast Show and Shooting Stars, the comedy hit of the year. However ... we still need fresher mainstream entertainment for our early evening audiences."

In addition to entertainment and drama, Mr Birt confirmed there would be a wide-ranging review of the network's news programmes to ensure they were communicating with young people.

Sir Christopher Bland, the BBC chairman, went out of his way to deny that the corporation was "betting the farm" on commercial operations and digital television when he revealed the BBC now spends 9 per cent, or around pounds 175m, of its revenue on digital ventures every year.

The corporation is in year one of a 10-year plan to convert to digital broadcasting, but Sir Christopher said that the corporation needed constantly to remind itself why it was getting involved in digital television and commercial partnerships with other broadcasters.

"We have a core purpose," he said, "and despite the changes of digital television it is, and will remain, to be a public service broadcaster."

Mr Birt said that "multi- skilling" programme-makers would deliver efficiency savings of 20 per cent over the next five years.

He said journalists will be able to create a television programme on their own, using a hi-tech desktop editing system. It will give all programme- makers access to all BBC sound and film archives via a "digital motorway" - christened the Electronic News Production System (ENPS).

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