Smith to tell BBC chiefs: stop dumbing down

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The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH is to warn the BBC to stop "dumbing down" and produce quality dramas and documentaries, rather than cheap quiz shows, when he meets the Board of Governors next month.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport intends to tell the Corporation's ruling body that the BBC's remit means it should be aiming for quality rather than ratings.

He will highlight serious concern among MPs about the reduction in the BBC's coverage of politics, including its decision to limit Yesterday in Parliament to Radio 4 longwave. Mr Smith is concerned that the number of listeners has dropped dramatically since the switch was made.

The Secretary of State will also warn the Board, chaired by Sir Christopher Bland, that the Corporation must do more to clamp down on "fakes" such as the bogus studio guests who appeared on the chat show Vanessa.

The BBC is responsible for regulating its own programme-makers and so is not liable for the huge fines which have been imposed on other networks by the Independent Television Commission.

Mr Smith has decided to weigh into the row over the direction the BBC should take amid growing concern that it is dumbing down to attract viewers and listeners.

The Corporation has come under increasing pressure in recent weeks following the decision by the ITV networks to move News at Ten so that they can screen feature films during the peak evening viewing hours. The BBC is also facing a serious challenge from the highly successful ITV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which attracts millions of viewers.

However, Mr Smith will make clear to the Board of Governors that the BBC should not seek to emulate such ratings-grabbing programmes. The Corporation must justify the money it gets from the public through the licence fee by emphasising culture over audience size, he will say. Ministers also believe that this is the way for the BBC to capitalise on its "brand name" abroad - the most popular programme exports are high quality dramas, such as This Life or Pride and Prejudice.

"To be popular you don't need to abandon quality, you don't need to dumb down to attract an audience," said a senior source at the Culture Department.

Mr Smith is supporting moves by Alan Yentob, Director of Television at the BBC, to return to "high-brow" programming and the values of Lord Reith. However, he is fighting an internal battle with other programme-makers, who are pushing to boost ratings instead.