[FINANCIAL TIMES - WEDNESDAY 17 MARCH 1999]
'We have been here before'. Back in 1957 the BBC hit back. Christopher Dunkley wonders if it can rise to the challenge this time around.
The cunning plan has succeeded beyond even ITV's wildest dreams. For years its schedulers have been trying to rid themselves of the vestiges of the public-service broadcasting requirements imposed during an earlier age of wavelength scarcity. The idea was that if they could jettison the half-hour news at 10 o'clock, they could run a seamless web of popular entertainment from early evening until bedtime, trounce the BBC, and increase their advertising income.
Prevented for years by politicians (who do so like to see their own faces on television in peak time) and broadcasting regulators from scrapping News At 10, the ITV schedulers made the best of a bad job. Yet, despite Cassandra-like warnings from John Birt, the BBC director-general, several years ago that, in the multi-channel age, the BBC would inevitably be losing audience share, it was ITV which saw its share drift downwards while the BBC's - to Mr Birt's amazement, presumably - held remarkably firm.
So when chief executive of the ITV network, Richard Eyre announced a year ago that, in 1999, he aimed to take a 39 per cent share of the audience in peak time, other broadcasters tried to sniff his breath. Yet even before the shifting of the news he was fulfilling his promise: ITV was taking a share of more than 40 per cent. Last week, the first with the news pushed to the margins at 6.30 and 11.00 pm, the full effect became clear and the BBC suddenly found itself being hit for six over the pavilion.
ITN reacted to the changes with comically self-regarding solemnity. It seems that its self-image is of some revered aristocrat, demoted by mindless bureaucrats, against the wishes of an adoring public. It doesn't seem to understand that most viewers could hardly care less whether their television news comes from ITN, the BBC, CNN or Sky.
Only a few details stick: Reggie Bosanquet amusing the nation by slurring his words; ITN's notorious "Nazi concentration camp" shot from Bosnia which appeared to show an emaciated prisoner fenced behind barbed wire but proved to have been produced by having a cameraman shoot outwards from inside a small barbed wire compound alongside the camp; or the opening item in last week's first 6.30 bulletin which announced breathlessly and at an amazing length that the chancellor of the exchequer was working on his Budget inside the Treasury where he was supplied with not one but two personal computers. Wow!
In Week One, where News At 10 used to be, we were offered: Kavanagh QC; a British drama version of Friends called Wonderful You in which 30-somethings in the London suburb of Crouch End are less sweet and fetching than they seem to imagine; the terrestrial television premiere of the 19th James Bond movie, Goldeneye; another movie, The Specialist, starring Sylvester Stallone; and a documentary called Infidelity about "sexual treachery". Playing against the sort of BBC programmes in which a grinning woman named Carol does a makeover of somebody's garage using only sun-dried tomatoes and pesto, the effects have been devastating. ITV has not merely got the edge, it has started taking three and four times as many viewers as BBC1.
And we have not even mentioned the wholly unsecret weapon, yet, the gameshow Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which ITV stripped across five days, Wednesday to Sunday. The success of this well-made general knowledge show, slickly presented by Chris Tarrant, has been phenomenal. As in its first two series, it is challenging Coronation Street and EastEnders for the very top of the ratings, an accomplishment normally achieved only by royal weddings and World Cup finals.
Though the people at BBC talk, justifiably enough, about swings and roundabouts, and emphasise how well they have performed in the new age of broadcasting so far, they are, of course, worried. Yet anyone with a long memory knows that we have been here before. In the autumn of 1957, ITV, then the new baby of British television, took 79 per cent of the audience, leaving just 21 per cent for a shocked and appalled BBC. How? Mainly by offering action drama (much of it American) and gameshows. Hearteningly the BBC hit back. Over the next few years the hitherto worthy but often boring corporation taught itself to make high-quality domestic drama which was also popular; good current affairs programmes such as Tonight which also won large audiences; and, above all, comedies that were not only full of sharp social observation, but very funny and hugely popular.
Can the BBC meet the challenge with similar success today? The trouble is that whereas the 1959 BBC was an alliance of baronies, overseen by benevolent enablers, in which almost any kind of genius could find some hidden spot to flourish in relative freedom, the 1999 BBC is a politically correct monolith, run by John Birt, a man with a degree in mechanical engineering, who puts his faith in management consultants and focus groups.
Last week in the House of Lords debate on the future of public-service broadcasting it was said of today's BBC that "creativity doesn't flourish in an atmosphere of despotism, coercion, and fear", and the speaker wasn't some embittered corporation hater, but P.D. James who, until recently, was a BBC governor. It was also said that the BBC suffered from "too much bureaucracy, over-bloated policy units, and too much spent on expansion in management" while programme budgets were being "dangerously squeezed" - claims that will be endorsed by anyone who has worked recently for the BBC. And the speaker? The last chairman of the corporation, Lord Hussey.
It was probably high time the BBC's pretentious "lifestyle" programming had a kick in the slats from a vigorously competitive ITV. For too long the BBC has been taking its eye off the ball, peering towards the supposed intricacies of the technological future, and in the process forgetting the actual simplicities of the present and the core domestic audience. But if the BBC is to respond in the necessary way, as it did once before, what will be needed from the top is clear leadership, charisma and programme ideas - not another set of weekend awareness seminars.