Leading Article: Climbing above the fray

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The outlines of a way forward for the BBC are beginning to emerge from the most recent and highly diverting wranglings among senior television executives. Sir Michael Checkland's words on the Today show yesterday morning, alongside some of the corporation's recent actions, suggest a gradual retreat from trash television, coupled with a determination not to leave that lucrative field at the mercy of any one competitor. If the BBC is to settle for a minority audience, then it does well to make sure that the remaining majority is as fragmented as possible.

There can be no doubt of the director-general's willingness to lead the BBC away from the lowest killing fields of popular taste. He said yesterday that the corporation could move out of quiz shows and should stop competing against cheap imported serials with cheap imported serials of its own.

This is clearly the right strategy. In an increasingly deregulated market, the BBC cannot hope to compete in tabloid television without endangering its right to the licence fee. This is not to say that it should abandon the attempt to reach large audiences. Quality television need not be a minority taste. And David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage, yesterday coupled his welcome defence of the principle of the licence fee with the observation that a service funded by everyone must have something to offer everyone. But the BBC at its best makes programmes that are as popular as its rivals' and more intelligent and elegant, too. That is the direction in which it must go now.

The sense that the corporation is an integral part of British life, and deserves special consideration, may be difficult to articulate precisely. It may be hard at times to justify at all. But it is an important part of the political and social landscape, and offers the BBC a protection and a way forward that is not available to the ITV companies. They have to take the low road now, and it is a crowded one. After January 1993 there will be no competition for BBC current affairs from any ITV company at peak time, when everything on the commercial networks will be aimed at the largest possible audience.

In this light the deals that the BBC has struck with BSkyB during the summer have made long-term sense, as well as being commercially advantageous in the short term. The first and most dramatic was the agreement to enter a deal for Premier League football, whereby BSkyB paid a fortune for live coverage on Sunday and Monday and the BBC kept the rather more attractive highlights on a Saturday, shutting out ITV completely.

No one knows whether the satellite networks will eventually rival the audience share of the ITV stations, but until they do, it makes perfect sense for the BBC to encourage them. Sir Michael yesterday revealed that the corporation is investigating a joint venture in satellite television with BSkyB. The Murdoch company would provide some funding, and access to a satellite. The BBC would maintain editorial control over the resulting 24-hour news channel. This, too, could be a deal to benefit both parties.

In the long run, the BBC has the unique selling point that it is the BBC, and should be relied on to deliver quality in whatever it undertakes. It is wise of the corporation to do all that it can to blur the distinctions between its rivals.