BBC flagship Natural History Unit budget to be cut by a third

Ciar Byrne,Arts,Media Correspondent
Friday 26 October 2007 00:00

The BBC's plans to slash by a third the budget of its world-famous Natural History Unit, the home of Planet Earth, have been condemned as "short-sighted" and "draconian" by programme-makers.

As part of 2,500 job losses across the BBC resulting from a below-inflation licence fee settlement, £12m is being lopped off the £37m budget of the Natural History Unit, which is based in Bristol, with 57 out of 180 staff posts being axed.

Programmes being dropped include BBC2's Wild strand presented by Bill Oddie – as well as one-off 30-minute shows and short series made for the 7pm slot on BBC1, which is now taken up by The One Show. The unit will also make fewer "adventure" programmes – titles such as Amazon Abyss, and Incredible Journeys and Jaws In Britain fronted by the vet Steve Leonard. The popular Big Cat Week would only be brought back as a single-evening event.

Although the BBC has pledged to continue to make landmark series such as Planet Earth, in the future it will not make two in one year as has happened this year with British Isles: A Natural History, and Life In Cold Blood, in which David Attenborough explores the insect world.

A breakdown of the posts which are being axed in the Natural History Unit includes 10 out of 25 producers, nine out of 17 assistant producers, 23 out of 33 researchers, and 11 out of 37 production management jobs. In addition, one executive producer and two series producers will lose their jobs.

Andrew Jackson, the managing director of Tigress Productions, one of the leading independent producers of wildlife shows, said: "It's a sad thing for the whole industry worldwide. I think the saddest thing is they are short-sighted. It's the depletion of the BBC talent base.

"The Natural History Unit is the leader in its field and what happens there has reverberations way beyond the BBC.

"One of the great assets of the BBC is that it can give stability which can give rise to some of the most creative work. Trust breeds creativity. If you have the trust of staff that their jobs are going to be safe, they'll start producing better work."

Stuart Carter, managing director of the factual specialist Pioneer Productions said: "There are certain areas which the BBC excels at, not just on a national basis, but on an international basis. It's very important that those areas are encouraged and made vibrant and fresh. Natural history is one of those areas. It comes up with hit after hit and is also commercially successful. Chopping that much out of it seems draconian."

He added: "Planet Earth could not have been done by any other organisation. It could not have been done by an indie. They would never have got the funding together. This is one of the jewels in the crown and they are ruining it. I'd rather hold on to that than Radio 1. It's crazy on every level. As with any business, you've got to look at the core asset and that's one of them."

Planet Earth has been a huge commercial success for the BBC, with sales worldwide. But employing several teams of programme makers to spend weeks on end in far-flung corners of the globe waiting for the rarest glimpses of animals such as the snow leopard hunting in the mountains of Pakistan does not come cheap – each episode cost over £1m to make. Staff currently filming on location are now anxious that they will not have jobs to return to. Martin Dohrn, who used to work for the Natural History Unit before leaving to set up his own production company, Ammonite, said: "Morale is going to plummet. It will definitely have an impact simply because the way that landmark series come into being is they have a large source of talent so they can pick the best."

Gerry Morrissey, general secretary of the broadcasting union Bectu, said: "These cuts could sound a death knell for the BBC. What you're going to end up with is a very small rump of internal staff. The experts inside the BBC will be lost. We're extremely disappointed. The other national broadcasters do not put much investment into natural history. They are cutting back on what the BBC is distinctive for doing and what the audience likes."

But Keith Scholey, BBC controller of factual production, said: "We're still going to be spending at least £25m a year for the next five or six years. The big pieces that everyone associates with the Natural History Unit are all going to continue. We've had to make some hard decisions, but after this change, our commitment is clear."

Where the job losses in the BBC will be

* Factual and news programmes are two of the biggest victims of the cuts across the BBC announced by the director general Mark Thompson last week.

* In total, 2,500 posts are being closed at the broadcaster, while 1,000 new posts will be created.

* Mr Thompson argues the cuts are necessary to fill a £2bn funding hole left by a below-inflation licence fee settlement.

* The director general has set out his vision of a BBC which makes fewer programmes, but what it does make will be of the highest quality and will be available to view on demand via a variety of media – from television to the internet.

* Across the BBC, the aim is to make three per cent annual savings, but in news, for example, this rises to 20 per cent.

* The amount spent on making TV shows is being cut by 10 per cent – £100m a year – with the BBC Director of Vision Jana Bennett pledging that "middlebrow factual" programmes will no longer be made.

* In BBC Vision – which makes television content – there will be up to 660 redundancies – 550 in the nations and regions; 370 in news; 130 in future media; 75 in audio and music; up to 75 in professional services – human resources and other back office functions were hit badly in the last round of "value for money" redundancies – and 20 in sport.

* Factual programming is bearing the brunt of the cuts in Vision – with 420 people set to lose their jobs.

* BBC management and broadcast unions Bectu and the National Union of Journalists have agreed that a trawl for voluntary redundancies will begin on 5 November. If the BBC cannot find enough volunteers, the management may then seek to make compulsory redundancies. If this goes ahead, the unions will ballot for industrial action and BBC staff could go out on strike, as they did over the last round of redundancies in 2005.

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