ITV winces as BBC finds the popular touch

A string of hit shows at the Beeb has upset rivals, says Michael Leapman
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The Independent Online
AS Controller of BBC1, Alan Yentob is used to complaints, but few can have given him more satisfaction than last week's blast from his chief competitor, Marcus Plantin, director of the ITV Network Centre. Mr Plantin accused Mr Yentob of being too successful, of behaving in "an incredibly commercial manner" and capturing viewers ITV once regarded as its own.

The BBC, Mr Plantin protested, has "completely abandoned the rarefied high ground which John Birt spoke of two years ago". As a result, ITV was being forced to "fight like never before to maintain our position as the world's most popular channel".

Under constant pressure from advertisers to win higher ratings, ITV chiefs habitually seek scapegoats. Sometimes they blame News at Ten for interrupting their schedules, and talk of moving it to early evening. Not long ago, the target was Channel 4, accused of going for big audiences rather than sticking to serving minorities. Now it is the BBC.

The chart below shows why Mr Plantin is worried. Over the past three years BBC1's share of the total television audience in the peak evening hours has climbed, not dramatically but steadily. In the same period, ITV's share has fallen. Over the whole day, BBC1's share has remained stable, while ITV's has fallen by nearly 3 per cent. For ITV, every lost viewer means a drop in advertising revenue - and that is why Mr Plantin is packing his autumn schedule with blockbuster movies to keep the millions watching.

Over at BBC1, Mr Yentob rejects the charge of going downmarket. "It's just that some things are beginning to work that didn't work before," he says. "If you look at the range of factual programmes, there are far more of them in the schedule now than when I took over."

Looking back to that time, at the beginning of 1993, Mr Yentob has reason to be gratified. That July, when he had been in charge for only six months, headlines told of a collapse in BBC1's share of the audience to 28.9 per cent, the lowest figure since 1985. His attempt to staunch the haemorrhage had already involved cancelling the ludicrous Eldorado, killing off Esther Rantzen's That's Life! and removing the Head of Light Entertainment, Jim Moir, (who last week returned to the BBC's front rank as Controller of Radio 2).

Later that July, speaking at the Birmingham Radio Festival, Mr Yentob seemed to signal his long-term strategy for halting the ratings decline. He said that while the BBC was providing plenty of fare for the A, B and C1 social categories (the middle and upper classes), the wider audience was being short-changed. The BBC, he felt, was "remote from people's lives", and needed to make "programmes which are popular with a substantial audience".

This seemed at variance with the principles laid down by John Birt, his Director-General, only eight months earlier - the principles that Mr Plantin defined last week as the "rarefied high ground". The policy document "Extending Choice", which Mr Birt masterminded, included a commitment to "eschew programming of a type and quality that can be found in abundance elsewhere", which was defined as "formula comedy or entertainment formats ... simple and unchallenging game shows and people chat shows".

Yet despite these words, Mr Birt never really committed himself to a retreat to the high ground. That option had been discussed and rejected by Mr Birt and the Board of Governors. They felt that a publicly funded broadcaster must provide programmes of interest to the majority, and they encouraged Mr Yentob to narrow the gap with ITV. In achieving this, his principal instruments have been the third weekly episode of EastEnders and the Saturday night National Lottery results - some way below the high ground.

The BBC originally conceived the Lottery draw as the centrepiece of a longer programme hosted by a major star, but nobody seemed keen on playing second banana to seven coloured balls. So what emerged was a 15- minute show that, although it often attracts more than 15 million viewers, Mr Yentob is understandably defensive about: "Essentially it brings the Lottery result and that's all it is. Obviously it's a good bridge in the schedule."

How good a bridge can be judged from the chart. The BBC now dominates the central part of Saturday evening, keeping nearly six million viewers until after 10pm. Stars In Their Eyes, the ITV show which is up against the Lottery, drew nine million viewers a week in 1993: now it is below seven million. ITV plans to put a new big-money game show opposite the Lottery draw.

As for the extra EastEnders episode on Mondays, this now draws almost as many as the 14 million plus (including the repeat) who watch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The much-publicised "Sharongate" episode attracted 25.3 million viewers, the highest audience recorded for any programme in the 1990s.

A key figure in BBC1's revival has been David Bergg, 37, who became scheduler for BBC1 a year ago. Mr Bergg hailed from TV-am and London Weekend. Not since Michael Grade ran BBC1 in the late Eighties has the schedule been so competitive. One of Mr Bergg's innovations has been to launch a complete new schedule for a single night all at once, rather than introducing new shows piecemeal.

"In the early spring we launched the Saturday schedule that contained Confessions, Bugs, Chicago Hope and the new Lenny Henry show all on the same night, and we managed to give ITV a bit of a shock. A little later we launched a whole new Sunday evening schedule."

This aggressive approach is enabling the BBC to score well among 16 to 44-year-old viewers and ABC1s - the people ITV's advertisers most want to reach. An example is the sitcom Men Behaving Badly, picked up by the BBC when ITV discarded it, and now winning around eight million viewers. "It's a double blow for Marcus Plantin," says Mr Bergg with relish. "We're getting bums on seats and a much higher audience share than Searching, his new Carla Lane sitcom - and at the same time we're picking up the viewers his advertisers love so much."

Mr Yentob is proudest of his success in reviving popular drama, the weakest part of the BBC1 portfolio when he took over. This year, five weekly series have attracted audiences above nine million, including Common as Muck, Bugs, Hamish MacBeth and Pie in the Sky. Yet he emphasises that he has not deserted the high ground - this autumn will see the launch of two costly projects, neither of them likely to get colossal ratings. One is a serialisation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the other a 26-part account of the 20th century called The People's Century.

"Running BBC1 is not just about competing head-on with ITV," he emphasises. "We have to do all kinds of other things as well. QED, Tomorrow's World, Songs of Praise, Panorama - every night on BBC1 you see examples of a commitment that hasn't been reneged on. We're trying to ensure that this difficult thing of maintaining a mixed schedule in this day and age is kept to.

"It would be mad to think that BBC1's share will equal ITV's. That's rarely been the case in the BBC's history and I don't expect it to be so now. I believe the BBC has to retain a healthy share but not at all costs."

In the long term, both mainstream channels are destined to lose share, not just to satellite and cable channels, but also to the new Channel 5, due on the air in 1997. When that happens, fresh thinking will be needed on the minimum audience share that will justify the licence fee, and whether a retreat to the high ground might then be good strategy. In the meantime, 32.2 per cent will do nicely.