Peter Fincham: 'Lurking in the background are ratings and share'

From a speech by the Controller of BBC1 to the Edinburgh International Television Festival
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The Independent Online

Of course, it might seem thoroughly uncontroversial to say that quality matters, but to some people quality exists in one corner of the broadcasting stage, and popularity in the other. There's a certain mindset in television that says "if you're looking for something interesting, look towards BBC2 - BBC1's there for a different reason, to cater to the mass audience, which isn't people like you and me, but they're important - they pay the licence fee, and if there's not enough of them we won't get a new licence fee, so let's not neglect them, but let's not challenge them either - let's give them what we think they want."

I've now been doing this job for three months and the brickbats haven't started flying at me, but I know they will. A BBC1 controller who talks about quality and range knows only too well that, lurking in the background, are the more sober realities of ratings and share. It would be nice, wouldn't it, if we could liberate ourselves from the tyranny of ratings. After all, we all know as viewers that ratings measure the number of people who are watching something at any one time. What they don't do is measure the quality of the experience.

I was reading a book of articles and pieces by Alan Bennett recently, Writing Home, and came across something he'd said at a memorial service for the BBC producer he'd worked with over many years, Innes Lloyd. Together they made some of TV drama's classic one-offssuch as A Question of Attribution. Writing about him, Alan Bennett says: "In all the years we worked together he never once told me what my viewing figures were or even mentioned them; to have done so would have been a concession to a view of television for which he had no time."

Well, the past is a foreign country. We won't get back there, and I'm not even sure we ought to.