Tuning in by remote control

Annus Horribilis, Annus Mirabilis; Alan Yentob was the visible face of BBC moguldom. Then John Birt flicked the switch. By Thomas Sutcliffe
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A little over a year ago, Alan Yentob, then controller of BBC1, gave an interview to this newspaper. The occasion was the imminent arrival of the Christmas schedules, a scheduler's potential Waterloo, when a whole year of arcane manoeuvring and skirmishes by the television generals comes down to a single set-piece battle.

Traditionally the BBC has played the part of Wellington in these encounters, enjoying at this one time of the year an advantage which it often loses for the rest. Which may be why Yentob spoke of the occasion with particular relish. "It's one of the few occasions of the year", he said, "when you could be getting people just sitting down watching your schedule quite consistently throughout the evening."

But it is also worth noting that the possessive "your" refers not just to the BBC but to the controller himself, uniquely possessed of a power to commission and arrange the programmes. For senior television executives, scheduling is perhaps the most prized skill of all - an often intuitive mystery which marks out the true elect. And at the end of this year, Alan Yentob, a high priest of the arcana, no longer has a schedule to call his own. Because what this year brought him was a paradoxical and unenviable gift: a promotion that many people saw as a demotion.

It took him some time to digest his change of status from controller of BBC1, able to commission programmes and spend the money, to the newly- created post of director of programmes, responsible for making sure the new controllers get the programmes they want. Though the BBC had been discussing a radical reorganisation for well over a year, Yentob had little idea that the mainly managerial task of amalgamating television and radio in-house production would eventually fall to him.

In the event he was informed only three days before the official announcement (vivid proof, incidentally, that John Birt's admiration for new management techniques remains only theoretical in some respects).

Yentob's new job may be daunting, but when John Birt says it is of crucial importance to the BBC he isn't just talking a soothing fiction. If the corporation is to survive as one of the world's great production houses rather than just a superior publisher-distributor, then much of that future depends on what Alan Yentob does next. He will have to ensure that the BBC is in a position to generate intellectual property that it can exploit in an explosion of new technical outlets. In some respects it would be hard to think of a more demanding post to occupy.

His difficulty, though, was that it didn't look like that from the outside. "I want to be good, and I want to be happy," Yentob wrote during one of the BBC's recent staff training seminars (holy days of obligation for the management faithful) and it occurred to many that he could have one or the other in his new job, but he was unlikely to get both. The received opinion ran something as follows: loyal and faithful servant confounds his critics (who had said he was too intellectual for the BBC's popular channel) by narrowing the ratings gap between the BBC and ITV.

Without abandoning the traditional values of the Corporation (indeed by self-consciously restoring some of them) he had taken the battle to the enemy. ITV, in creative trouble anyway, had to absorb the shock of being beaten for overall share for the first time in years. And as a reward for these services he found himself excluded from a job he loved; and, some argued, sidelined from the succession too.

On this last matter, the BBC Kremlinologists are still divided. Some, arguing that the power to commission is the fundamental weapon in an executive's hands, suggest that the move to production makes it more difficult for Yentob to ascend to the director-generalship. Others, more realistically, note that the task, if successfully achieved, would fill the one remaining blank in an already impressive CV. Nobody doubts his ability as a programme- maker or scheduler or impresario of talent, but in the field of management he still has things to prove - and this would do it incontrovertibly. Yentob may have taken an unexpected fork in the road, but it might yet offer a more direct route to the top.

That hardly means things will be easy. As well as the Herculean task of putting BBC Production in order (a job that will require painful personnel decisions and the friction of organisational change), Yentob will have to reassert his own editorial clout (the fact that the perceptions may be wrong does not necessarily diminish the damage they might do). He has a certain amount of inertia on his side: by far the greatest proportion of the BBC's output comes from its in-house production talent (though, like other broadcasters, the BBC has a statutory obligation to take 25 per cent of its material from independent production companies). This gives Yentob a very powerful base from which to affect the BBC's output in all areas. He also chairs the Programme Committee, a body which makes decisions about long-term editorial strategy for the entire Corporation.

But there are other factors. The news that Jane Root (one of the founders of the very successful independent production company Wall to Wall) is shortly to be appointed as head of independent commissions, reporting directly to Michael Jackson and Mark Thompson, must give Yentob pause for thought. That figure of 25 per cent, after all, is a minimum, not a ceiling. In some areas, such as entertainment, around 42 per cent of programming is already coming from independent companies. If that figure was to be replicated elsewhere, the influence of BBC Production - and of the man who runs it - would unquestionably be diminished.

More intangible still is the question of personal relationships in this cat's-cradle of responsibility and authority. Michael Jackson, the new director of television and the figure to whom some newspapers have already handed the unofficial title of The Most Powerful Man in Television, has been a friend of Yentob's for some time, but not for as long as Root, with whom Jackson worked on influential programmes such as Channel 4's The Media Show. Her arrival sends a clear message that the BBC wants to improve its relationship with the independent sector, not merely meet its legal obligations. Those interested in the ebb and flow of power will be watching carefully to see in which direction certain unmoored independent producers begin to drift - will Peter Bazalgette, for example, the inventor of some of the BBC's most successful daytime programming, offer new programmes through BBC Productions or through Jane Root's department?

If there is a cultivated rivalry here - one intended to make BBC Production fit for external competition by bringing in a sparring partner through the front door - then Yentob will make a formidable local champion, as he has large reserves of staff respect to trade on, plus a track record of innovation. He is also genuinely dedicated to the idea of the BBC as a public-service broadcaster, a vocational passion he will need to carry him through the tricky months ahead.

Not the least of his tasks now, though, is to convince all his colleagues of what he already believes - that his sudden change of title was a ladder and not a snake.

Tomorrow: Irvine Welsh's annus mirabilis