BBC plans its biggest public consultation: Two million questionnaires key part of 'keep in touch' exercise

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The Independent Online
THE BBC is to undertake the biggest consultation exercise in its history - sending questionnaires to two million homes a year and holding weekly meetings throughout the country - to be more in touch with the public.

This was the key point in the BBC's response yesterday to the government Green Paper on the corporation's future.

However, it also emerged yesterday that the BBC has already undertaken a major survey of public views and in at least one instance is acting directly contrary to the majority wish.

Part of that survey asked viewers for their opinions about programmes. In the case of one programme, EastEnders, the 2,000 sample was asked if the BBC should show more episodes per week. Only 12 per cent said it should, yet Alan Yentob, head of BBC 1, has announced he will be increasing the number of weekly episodes from two to three.

When it was put to Mr Birt yesterday that this first example of taking public views on board did not seem to show that the BBC was listening more to viewers' wishes, he replied: 'We are trying to make judgements informed by the listeners and viewers, but the broadcasters cannot be enslaved by it.'

As part of its determination to be more accountable, the BBC will from next year be sending questionnaires on policy and programming to 10 per cent of licence-holders a year. In addition to this, and weekly meetings with viewers' and listeners' panels, there will be new proposals, to be announced next month, to clarify the roles of the BBC governors and management to increase accountability.

John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, said: 'It's clear that the public wants to know more about the BBC, to feel listened to. We have to ensure we are a more accountable institution. But let us not also forget that this is one of the most successful institutions created in any country in the 20th century and our licence-payers have expressed clear support for the nature and extent of the services the BBC currently provides.'

In its response to the Government, the BBC published a survey of 2,000 viewers and listeners and the results of numerous public meetings which show clear support for the BBC, its funding by the licence and the range of programmes it shows.

Patricia Hodgson, director of policy and planning at the BBC, said the new consultation exercise starting next year would be 'the largest rolling referendum on public serivice issues. From our initial costings it's a very non-expensive way to take soundings.'

However, Michael Grade, chief executive at Channel 4, who introduced his channel's annual report yesterday, said: 'Anything that brings into the debate the views of the viewers has to be welcomed. But there are still questions to be asked. What is it going to cost and is that money that could have gone into programmes; and is the BBC going to do anything about the views it receives? The BBC is very good at listening but it isn't always very good at acting on the information it receives.' Mr Grade is former director of programmes at the BBC.

Channel 4 confirmed yesterday that the BBC had paid it pounds 65,000 to untie the 'golden handcuffs' contract it had paid Channel 4's then director of programmes Liz Forgan before she took up the job of managing director, radio, at the BBC.

Mr Grade's 'golden handcuffs' to keep him as chief executive at the channel for five years amounted to pounds 250,000 on top of his salary last year. His current salary is pounds 314,000, the annual report disclosed.

Channel 4 will make several million pounds from its investment in The Crying Game, Mr Grade said yesterday. The film took dollars 60m at the box office in the United States and cost pounds 3m to make, of which Channel 4 put up pounds 1m. Mr Grade added that Channel 4, which also helped finance Howard's End, was now responsible for 99 per cent of the success of the British film industry.