No extinctions at the BBC when it comes to broadcasting natural history

Job cuts don't mean the BBC is abandoning its commitment to great natural history programming, insists the man in charge Keith Scholey

Monday 03 March 2008 01:00

How do giant tortoises make love? How do saltwater crocodiles make sure they get a square meal? And how do green turtles guarantee a happy underwater sex life?

Tonight, millions of BBC One viewers will find out the answers in the final episode of the latest David Attenborough blockbuster, Life in Cold Blood (but if you can't wait until then, see the answers at the end of this piece).

Yet, despite the series winning viewers and critical praise, there is a story going the rounds that the BBC is abandoning its commitment to natural-history output. Most people would agree that the BBC would be mad to do so: audiences love the programmes, and the BBC has an undisputed global reputation for excellence in making them. So, as the man ultimately in charge of the people who make these great shows, let me put the record straight.

I think the problem is that some people have interpreted recent changes at the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) as signalling a fundamental change in direction. This is quite wrong. Yes, we have lost some production jobs. The lower-than-expected licence fee settlement has meant hard choices for every part of the BBC – including natural history programming, where we have lost 54 jobs and seen our budget reduced by £12m, from £37m to £25m.

There's another factor. BBC natural history programmes have always been very attractive to overseas buyers, meaning that the licence fee has only had to bear about half of the production cost of some big projects, with the rest coming from international sales. However, the scale of the external funding depends on the size of the licence fee contribution. When that reduces, as is the case now, then the effect on jobs is magnified by the consequent reduction in international income.

The BBC has taken the strategic decision to open up more of its output to independent programme-makers – including some very talented wildlife specialists – so we need fewer in-house production staff. So we've had to make some difficult and distressing decisions about staff numbers at the BBC NHU in Bristol. I began my own programme-making career there, and ran the NHU for five years; it has been painful to see valued colleagues face the possibility of leaving the BBC – although it should be said that the job losses in Bristol are on a significantly smaller scale than those in comparable factual programme areas, such as in London.

In spite of the cuts, we will continue to make and show the ambitious, large-scale, truly memorable series that audiences associate with BBC natural history output. Later this year, BBC Two will show Wild China, the first-ever comprehensive wildlife series from this vast, fascinating, but still largely unknown continent. BBC One will show Nature's Great Events, a spectacular series about the earth's most breathtaking natural occurrences. Next year we'll show Life, the biggest thing we've ever done on animal behaviour. Still further ahead is Frozen Planet, our definitive series about the Arctic and Antarctic from the people who made Planet Earth. So it is quite wrong to make the leap from some staff reductions at the NHU to a reduction in the BBC's commitment to natural history programmes.

In addition, the hugely popular Springwatch and Autumnwatch series will continue to drive our successful campaign called "Breathing Spaces", which gets people to take an active interest in British wildlife. Our radio output is becoming ever more ambitious – witness the World on the Move season following animal migration. Meanwhile, our astonishing interactive web-based Earth portal will bring the ever-changing natural world into millions of homes and classrooms.

There will, it is true, be some things we'll do a bit less of – there's always an ebb and flow in the production cycle for any genre. So some programmes that don't sit right at the heart of the schedules won't be recommissioned. Wild, which was shown in the early evening on Sunday nights on BBC Two, is a case in point. It was popular, but had nothing like the impact of the big series, such as Planet Earth. In tough times, when hard choices have to be made, it is right to lose the lower-profile series and maintain those with a higher profile.

The slightly different mix of programmes is, incidentally, another reason why we need fewer in-house production staff. The lower-profile productions tend to spend a higher proportion of their budgets on staff than high-profile series such as Life in Cold Blood. Most of the budgets for these major series goes to specialist freelances, such as wildlife camera and sound teams who often have to spend long periods in the wild to capture rare behaviour. The freelance wildlife community has long played a crucial role in the success of BBC natural history production, and it's vital that we continue to support their work. Our continued investment in the big blockbusters will assure this.

The BBC will continue to invest very heavily in natural history, between £25m and £30m each year. That's much more than any other broadcaster. Looking down the list of the programmes we have in production over the coming years, I am entirely confident that the public will know that the BBC's commitment to this key area of its programme portfolio – on TV, radio and online – is as strong as ever.

Keith Scholey is controller of factual production at BBC Vision.

Answers: mating giant tortoises fit themselves together like spoons; the crocs work in teams to trap migrating fish; and green turtles have to fight desperate underwater battles to secure a mate

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