The Director-General’s Chair
1 Jan 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2089
This time, Glenn takes on the BBC’s top job.
Apart from the large salary, the chauffeur driven car and the third floor office at Broadcasting House, I have quite fancied the job of Director General at the BBC and have pondered on how I would approach the most powerful broadcasting job in Britain.
Currently the BBC is in a far healthier state than it was under John Birt, and ratings for BBC Television and Radio have remained good despite the enormous competition from commercial broadcasters. Programming standards have improved after a disastrous spell in the nineties when the BBC tried to move downmarket to compete with the commercial sector; and the Corporation broadcasts, with some exceptions, a decent range of quality and innovative programmes that no other broadcaster can manage. Fair enough, people will always hark back to the glory days of Sir Ian Trethowan and Alisdair Milne, but it should be pointed out some of the Corporation’s programmes were terrible ( twee sitcoms like Terry and June and badly made variety were just as predominant as quality programming) and demands for privatisation whenever ratings slipped were just as common as now. The BBC is in the best health it has ever been and, after the disaster of the Birt years, morale is high.
So what would I do as Director General? You could say business as usual, but I have noticed several areas where the BBC should be overhauled.
As has been mentioned on this site previously, BBC Two seems to be leading a confused life. Originally set up in 1964 as a minority and intellectual channel, the station has seen its more intellectually challenging programming taken by BBC Four and its innovative comedy taken by BBC Three. Trapped in a no man’s land, BBC Two seems not to know which way to turn, as imitating BBC One would lose it credibility and becoming an analogue BBC Four would lead to accusations of duplication and superfluity. Consequently BBC Two ratings are falling and, personally, I seldom watch the station as it seems rudderless and its digital siblings are better.
BBC Two needs a fresh image and a new direction. BBC One should be redeveloped as an entertainment station, retaining its familiar mix of drama, light entertainment and films, but should be divested of some of its programming that would be better suited to BBC Two. BBC Two should be made the BBC’s main sports channel: certainly something like a rugby league match, which is of limited appeal, would be better suited to BBC Two. I propose Saturday Grandstand and Football Focus be moved to BBC Two, while BBC One concentrates on films and entertainment programmes on Saturday afternoons. Also, moving most of the BBC’s sport to BBC Two, would mean sports events that overrun into the Saturday evening entertainment on One could now be shown in their entirety on Two, and the trend for showing FA Cup qualifiers and the Six Nations Championship after Grandstand, and a bone of contention for non sport fans, would be better accomodated on Two, leaving One to show its usual Saturday night fare.
Similarly the late night news overlap is another pain for viewers who do not like the news. Between 10pm and 11pm, The Ten O Clock News and local news, News at 10.30 on ITV1 and Newsnight overlap with each other. What I propose is a reintroduction of the Nine O Clock News on BBC Two, followed by regional news, and the vacant news slot on One would be ideal if the station wants to show a 90- minute drama or a film without interruption. ( Since News at Ten was abolished on ITV1, 90 minute dramas like Taggart and Trial and Retribution have become popular.) Newsnight would continue in its 10.30 slot as a news analysis programme.
Panorama, now shown on BBC One at 10.15 on a Sunday, would be another ideal candidate for BBC Two, leaving BBC One to free up its 10.15 Sunday slot for the film, which is usually shown after Panorama. Again, in my move to make BBC Two the sport and current affairs home of the BBC, Panorama would move to 10.15 Sunday on Two. Also The Politics Show would be moved to BBC Two, which would complement the weekday Daily Politics. I would also be keen for the station to introduce a televisual version of Today in Parliament at 7.30pm on weekdays.
The move of Top of the Pops to BBC Two has been a sign that the station is developing an interest in pop music programming, which has been sadly lacking for years on BBC Two. Although the move has been knocked, it should be remembered that Top of the Pops audiences have been minimal on BBC One for the last ten years and scheduling the show after the Official Chart Show on Sundays was the right move. I propose that BBC Two becomes the home of televised pop music on the BBC. I would see that the station reintroduces The Old Grey Whistle Test, hosted by a muso like Jo Whiley or Steve Lamacq, and buys the rights to concerts by leading musicians, perhaps reintroducing the old concept of Sight and Sound in concert where a concert was broadcast simultaneously on Radio 1 in stereo on a Saturday night.
I would also like to see the DEF 2, though with a more contemporary name, strand reintroduced between 6 and 7pm. Youth orientated documentaries and programmes again seem to have largely vanished on BBC Two, giving rise to the argument the station is stuffy and old. The Old Grey Whistle Test would form part of the youth strand, but there would also be documentaries about issues that affect young people, comedy shows aimed at the younger audience and re runs of popular imported cartoon series like King of the Hill and South Park, which were very popular in the nineties.
At other times BBC Two would continue with its minority programming, but the rebranding of the station as the home of BBC sport, current affairs, music and youth programming would give it a more defined image and improve ratings.
As regards the digital BBC channels, little needs to be done as these are now performing well. However, BBC Three has decided to cancel its news programmes and there seems little point in having a full length news bulletin on BBC Four as the station is not intended as a news broadcaster; BBC News 24 provides a news service for digital viewers.
The next contentious problem at the BBC is the proposed move to Manchester, which has now been put back to 2011. Apart from the cost of such a move, and worries the Television Centre could become a white elephant as BBC News is already moving to Broadcasting House in 2008, a large move to Manchester would gain the Corporation nothing. It seems rather pointless moving BBC Sport to Manchester just before the Olympics and then having to move hundreds of staff back down to cover the Olympics.
What I propose is a smaller change. BBC Sport is better off kept in London, as this is where the bulk of the country’s major sporting events are held, but I do support the decision to move children’s programming to Manchester, as Manchester does have a good tradition in this field, and maybe give existing staff a bigger role in making networked programming, particularly light entertainment and music programming, where Manchester has had a good reputation in the past.
BBC Radio continues to perform well, attracting 52 per cent of the audience according to the latest RAJARs. However, there is room for improvement and change.
Regardless of what I might think of the changes made at Radio 1 in the nineties, the station has successfully reinvented itself as a pop station for the under 25s and audiences have settled around the 10 million mark, excellent bearing in mind the massive amount of competition 1 is under these days. However, talking to younger listeners who like rock, the station seems to serve this market badly and still has a surfeit of dance music, when this music form is far less popular than it was five years ago. What I propose is for 1 to reintroduce the Friday and Saturday Rock Shows to replace the two dance shows on these nights and also to introduce wall to wall coverage of The Reading Festival. The reintroduction of Sight and Sound In Concert on Saturdays would be slanted towards rock. However, devotees of Pete Tong, Dave Pearce and Judge Jules should not fear as their programmes would be rescheduled. I would also encourage DJs to talk less and play more music, though this criticism has been levelled for decades at the station.
Radio 2 deservedly has become the nation’s favourite station, playing a wider variety of music than any other station in Britain, but it is still torn between wanting to be an older Radio 1 and the Light Programme, which serves neither party. In particular, Sundays and Friday nights are a no-go area for the younger listeners and traditional listeners would find little of appeal on weekdays. The BBC on Sundays serves listeners aged 30 to 60 badly: as I am writing this article on a Sunday night, I have a choice of Dave Pearce’s Dance Anthems, the antediluvian fare on Melodies for You and forties music on Radio Cumbria, so the radio remains off.
What I propose is to set up a digital version of Radio 2 for older listeners called 2 Extra. This would take the Sunday and Friday night programmes from 2, which would be replaced with programmes that appealed to the 30-60 age group, but would at other times play programmes of fifties and sixties music hosted by presenters familiar to older Radio 2 listeners like Alan Titchmarsh and Gloria Hunniford. Wogan, if he was willing, would make an ideal choice for 2 Extra. Radio 2 would then be free to concentrate on serving the 30-60 age group and would genuinely become a “Radio 1 and a half”.
As for the less populist networks, these seem to be in good shape as audience figures remain good, but Radio 3 still seems to introverted and inaccessible at times. While I fully support the station’s commitment to avant garde music, the station seems to go over many listeners heads and is still beaten by two listeners to one by Classic FM. Classic FM, I admit, has been good for making classical music accessible, but is hampered by commercial breaks, which means full symphonies cannot be played. What Radio 3 should do is introduce a daily programme called Popular Classics where two well known pieces such as Handel’s Water Music and Beethoven’s Fifth Symhony are played back to back. A classical request programme on a Sunday morning would be another step in the right direction.
Another way for the BBC to make its classical output more accessible is to reintroduce classical music on Radio 4 when Radio 3 is hosting a speech programme. A show of popular classics on the line of the axed Baker’s Dozen is what I propose. With regard to Radios 4 and 5 Live, as these seem to be performing well, there are no changes proposed to their output, although I would like Radio 4 to use BBC English for its announcements and news bulletins as this carries more authority and is popular with the listeners.
The BBC’s digital radio services are performing well and have found their niches. However, as there are stations aimed at Black and Asian listeners, and Welsh speakers have had Radio Cymru for many years, a distinctly Scottish type station, not just a Gaelic language service, has never been mooted. Radio Scotland Extra, a digital version of Radio Scotland, would be created that would have a Gaelic breakfast and evening programme, but at other times would feature traditional Scottish music, book readings from classic Scottish writers and classic plays and contemporary dramas, even a soap opera, about Scotland. Although there would not be enough material to sustain a 24/7 network, the station would broadcast 12 hours a day and would carry Radio Scotland at other times.
On the subject of BBC local radio, stations seem to have a conflicting identity. Some like GMR want to be talk stations, while others (Radio Cumbria, Radio Newcastle) see themselves as a local service that also plays Radio 2 type music. There seems to be a lack of consistency between the stations. I propose that except in the evenings and at night, when stations join together as regional networks, BBC local radio becomes speech only. This will prevent the stations duplicating Radio 2 and making these into local versions of 5 Live, with an emphasis on rolling local news, sport and phone ins, will remove the inconsistency and confusion at BBC local radio.
Finally, the thorny issue of funding the Corporation. The BBC wants to see the licence fee raised by two per cent above inflation every year. Although this is fair to see the BBC adequately funded, and the licence fee still remains one of the lowest in Europe, it is still a considerable burden on pensioners aged 60 to 74, who are still liable to pay the full licence. (Free licences for the over 75s were introduced in 1999.) I propose that the government introduce free licences for those aged 60-74. Also, the direct debit method of paying the licence should include a weekly, as well as a monthly, debit to make it easier for poorer viewers to pay the licence.
These are my basic proposals if I became Director General of the BBC.