The fine print: what the report promises to bring us
Yesterday, Maggie Brown watched the BBC unveil plans to revitalise its entire radio and TV output. She explains what is in store
Thursday 16 February 1995
Popular drama is a key problem for BBC1,facing hugely successful ITV series night after night. With two outstanding exceptions, Eastenders and Casualty, it has failed to combine artistic ambitions with accessibility and mass audience appeal. Yet popular drama is at the heart of successful schedules, reaching across class boundaries. Nor can the BBC match ITV's drama budgets.
Major disappointments such as Eldorado and A Year in Provence, "which fail to deliver either in audience or artistic terms", the report admits, have tarnished the channel's reputation.
The report promises action: an increase in quantity and quality of popular drama; something new to be scheduled throughout the year, including the dead summer period; more drama made in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and from regional English centres. The BBC will pilot a second daily mini-drama on Radio 1, introduce adaptations of popular literature to Radio 2, and try to vary Radio 4 drama to appeal to more people. Radio 3 will also have major seasons of classic drama.
Costume productions such as Middlemarch and Martin Chuzzlewit are safe.
The BBC feels the mission to entertain is getting harder, and the cost of hiring top stars is rising hugely because of competition. Further, not all programmes appeal nationwide: Birds of a Feather does not go down well in Scotland.
The report details the scale of the problem with television light entertainment. By the early 1990s, the stream of hit shows was drying up, except for Noel's House Party. While the Generation Game continued to flourish, most programmes (eg, That's Life) were left on air beyond their useful life.
"The challenge of mainstream entertainment for all channels should not be underestimated," says the report. Some new shows, Do the Right Thing with Terry Wogan, and How Do They Do That? with Desmond Lynam, have been encouraging, but not enough.
There must be a systematic method of moving BBC2 stars to BBC1, and the BBC must improve the way it manages its stars. The report wants more shows for older people, especially musical entertainment; and more roles for talented young blacks and Asians.
In contrast, the new generation of situation comedies is highlighted, including Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley and Goodnight Sweetheart. And credit is given to the "remarkable flowering in sketch comedy" - Harry Enfield, French and Saunders, Fry and Laurie and BBC2 programmes such as The Day Today, Knowing Me Knowing You, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, and Fantasy Football League.
The arts are a target for big changes. Too much coverage has reached a narrow band of the middle aged and middle class, while research shows the tone and style can be offputting to everyone else.
With more and younger people visiting art galleries, the cinema and events, the arts are breaking out of their old categories, and the programme-makers should follow them with more relevant and accessible shows. Proposals include more arts programmes from outside London, an experimental and polemical arts strand on BBC2, and a search for individuals to present programmes.
The report backs programmes devoted to one subject rather than a magazine approach. BBC Television's concentration on modern opera and music needs to change: "This trend runs counter to the mainstream of audience taste."
There is little or nothing on BBC Television to cater for classical CD buyers, says the report. It promises more dance and more architecture and design on BBC2. Radio 1 is to introduce regular coverage of cinema and video.
NEWS & CURRENT AFFAIRS
The BBC is aiming to popularise its output. It is also facing a rising demand for local news and weather. The report says that presentation can seem "distant and unfriendly" compared with ITV and commercial radio. The huge investment in specialist coverage has not impressed audiences. People appear to be fed up withpolitical programmes geared to a small lite: they want more on health, education, employment, science, the arts and sports results.
The report admits that until recently, both Panorama and Question Time seemed "in danger of losing touch with their audiences". The BBC has also seemed slow to react to big news stories.There is to be an extra 20 minutes per week for regional news bulletins after the Nine O'Clock News, and, possibly, regional editions of Question Time. The report hopes there will be new programmes about politics for younger people, and new forms of consumer programmes, on health and legal issues.
The BBC concedes it faces a dilemma: how to attract new listeners without alienating existing ones. "There is a lesson to be learnt about the pace of change" from Radio 1, it says; some people found the abrupt changes confusing and difficult. But there is no hint of backtracking on the changes here.
Accordingly, Radio 2 is told to reach out to the Beatles generation, who are in their forties and play rock music, but without alienating existing audiences. Changes must be evolutionary. Radio 3 is to make itself more welcoming, and increase its output of live music.
Radio 4 is expected to continue as a "broad editorial church", despite the growth of niche broadcasting. It will be expected to increase the emphasis on non-journalistic programmes, comedy, entertainment, and to start a new gardening programme. It is also urged to find new ways of covering science and natural history.
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