On the eve of the BBC's 60th birthday celebrations, Marcus Plantin, head of the ITV network, yesterday challenged the BBC to produce Sunday night scheduling that will rival ITV's.
Mr Plantin has already announced that he will be running a fourth episode of Coronation Street on Sundays; yesterday he announced he will make the big push for viewers by transmitting the multi-million pound television film of Jane Austen's Emma, straight after the first Sunday evening episode of the soap on 24 November.
Emma, starring Kate Beckinsale as the eponymous, meddlesome heroine, has been adapted by Andrew Davies, who wrote the acclaimed televised version of Pride and Prejudice for the BBC. Plantin will follow up Emma with another costume drama, Moll Flanders, two weeks later, well aware that the BBC is still smarting from the failure of its historical blockbuster Rhodes, which completes its run tonight. The critics gave the story of Cecil Rhodes a drubbing; the audiences fell away within a week.
Rhodes is one of the most expensive series the BBC made for this autumn. But the pounds 10 million investment failed to produce the kind of drama that grabbed viewers. After achieving nearly 8 million viewers for its first episode, by the end of the nine-week run it was down to 4 million.
"We have been astonished by BBC1's Sunday evening schedule. People don't like history lessons; they want to be entertained," said Plantin.
Getting the mix right on the two main channels on Sunday nights has always been one of the hardest challenges for schedulers. The most commonly held theory is that people are preparing mentally to return to work. The result? They want programmes that offer escapism .
While viewers are all important to ITV and its advertisers, the BBC's view is that it also has a duty as a public service broadcaster. Asked whether the BBC would be forced to opt for a more populist menu on Sunday nights to compete with ITV, a spokesman said: "We won't ever be forced into that situation. We are a public service broadcaster. We have a remit in our contracts to provide a range of programming that otherwise might not be there."
In two weeks, the battle of the channels will be stepped up when BBC1 launches its major Sunday night rival to ITV - a three-part adaptation of Anne Bronte's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves and Toby Stephens.
Meanwhile, ITV's intention is to have storylines devised for Coronation Street which peak on a Sunday night, and Plantin is hoping the soap will pull in at least as many viewers as it does on weekdays - about 16 million an episode. If it does that, it will be sweet revenge for ITV, which has seen Coronation Street lose out in the ratings war to its arch-rival Eastenders.
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