Welcome feeling as BBC2 softens its image

Rhys Williams reports on the network's response to the challenge of Channel 4
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BBC2 was always a forbidding place - a land of men with bad haircuts and sideburns, standing in front of blackboards and speaking in words of not less than four syllables. But that has changed.

Under intense competitive pressure from Channel 4, the network has given itself a more appealing lick of paint and laid out the mat marked "welcome". And now audiences appear to be returning.

With a keen eye on soft spots in its rivals' schedules, Channel 4 pitched aggressively in the daytime with chat and game shows, and at 10 o'clock in the evening with winning US imports such as ER and NYPD Blue, or films.

Although continuing to trail BBC2 at peak time, by the end of 1993 Channel 4 had nudged ahead to an 11 per cent share of viewing across the day, compared with BBC2's 10 per cent.

It would be wrong to say that alarm bells tinkled at BBC2, where frankly ratings have never been the primary consideration, but this slippage was not the happiest refrain to be heard at the party to celebrate Michael Jackson's first year as the network's controller. However, the gap has steadily closed, and during the first half of this year the channels were level-pegging, with BBC holding a 2 per cent lead at peak time.

Jackson was appointed controller of BBC2 in April 1993. At the age of 35, he was the youngest incumbent since Michael Peacock launched the channel in 1964, aged 34.

He inherited from Alan Yentob, now controller of BBC1, a network which by common consent was bold and brilliant. Under Yentob, BBC2 brimmed with vitality providing a mantelpiece of award-winning shows - Middlemarch, Absolutely Fabulous and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

While virtually anything Yentob did to BBC1 would have been an improvement to a network still screening Eldorado, Jackson was handling the television equivalent of a piece of finely crafted porcelain. One clumsy move, and crash ...

He recalls: "You think what is there to be done? You can either keep it going as it is or make it worse. Actually once that initial thought passed and I settled, I realised that what I wanted to do was, without making BBC2 less intelligent, make it more welcoming, to try to get away from the idea it was a rather forbidding place, associated with university lecturers."

Apart from a bust of Stalin, his office at BBC Television Centre is refreshingly free of the trappings of media executive power - just the odd juggling ball on a coffee table, a Dr Who tardis biscuit tin and a cuddly BBC2 logo hanging from a window frame.

"It's very important for BBC2 to be relevant," he says. "I don't think it should be a toff's channel, an up-market ghetto. It absolutely has to be a channel for everybody."

In programming terms, that has meant an equal emphasis on highbrow documentaries such as the forthcoming Death of Yugoslavia or the recent Russian Wonderland, and leisure output like Ready Steady Cook or Jancis Robinson's History of Wine. It means that classic costume drama such as Martin Chuzzlewit has been screened alongside Knowing Me Knowing You and Fantasy League Football.

Unlike BBC1 or ITV, he says, BBC2 is not scheduled to get them early and keep them. "We don't need to do that, which gives us a fantastic freedom to back interesting talent, to reach different parts of the audience at different times. It's a channel very much in tune with how people are changing in that they are much more contrary, more diverse than they were ever before.

"When I was growing up, if you sat on a train and people were reading the Daily Mail or Guardian, you kind of knew what their world picture was. That's not true any more. Now you get crusty country types, for example, who are environmentalists."

Jackson has tended to the previously neglected afternoon schedule by snapping up Oprah Winfrey (carelessly discarded by Channel 4) as well as introducing a similar-style talk show hosted by Esther Rantzen.

Classical drama has regularly drawn audiences of more than 5 million, while comedy, traditionally a BBC strength, has prospered. In addition, Jackson has amalgamated Screenplay and Screen Two under the latter title to give BBC2 drama a consistency and regular presence of the sort once enjoyed by the Wednesday Play. Although determined not to become "reliant" on US imports (a charge he regularly lays against Channel 4) he has not been afraid to turn to the States when it suits for Seinfeld, Larry Sanders Show and the X-Files.

He has also been prepared to take the Tippex to programmes that many thought inviolable. Both 40 Minutes and Arena were cancelled on the grounds they had grown weary. The former's replacement, Modern Times, has yet to bed in and will only do so, Jackson says, when it combines its evident instinct for strong human stories with "allowing film makers to tell you something quite personal about the world". A new arts strand, TX, follows this autumn.

Attention is now turning to other parts of the schedule. He says he wants more programmes of "passion and conviction" and is keen to begin addressing younger, female audiences. "We miss a regular drama. I wouldn't want to do another soap like Brookside, necessarily, because I'm not sure there's room in people's lives for another soap, but not to have a drama that people can connect with the channel is something we have to address."