Strictly off limits? 

22 September 2009 tbs.pm/1101

BBC’s Sir Michael Lyons weighs into row over Strictly scheduling clash

It seems very obvious at this point in time that the BBC Trust has to at least look as if it is doing a useful task, especially as the Trust is in imminent danger of being made extinct regardless of who wins the next election.

Hence it’s no surprise to discover that Sir Michael Lyons is erring on the side of a pure public service argument in this particular case, even though there are potentially strong and well-established arguments for (and against) a major BBC/ITV schedule clash.

For one thing, it’s perfectly possible to deduce that the BBC is actually doing ITV a favour by scheduling Strictly Come Dancing up against ITV’s The X Factor, simply because X Factor currently has a guaranteed audience virtually regardless of what any other UK broadcaster can regularly schedule in opposition.

The reason? If Strictly Come Dancing was showing at a time when ITV1 had much weaker opposition (which these days is almost everything else) then it would practically annihilate that slot for ITV as a consequence, and would further encourage ITV to churn out even more X Factor clones as opposed to anything vaguely original for Saturday nights.

Conversely it’s also the case that the BBC has a duty to ensure that as many licence fee-payers as possible have the opportunity to watch Strictly Come Dancing, plus as it is a live show, the iPlayer might not provide the ideal solution to the same extent on this occasion as it would otherwise with drama such as Doctor Who.

As others have pointed out, major Saturday night scheduling rivalry between BBC1 and ITV(1) dates back at least as far as the late 1970s (Generation Game versus Big Night Out), and there have been numerous other examples of direct schedule clashes over many years that are too many to mention.

So nothing is new here then, except for the fact that hostility towards the BBC is gathering steam due to dwindling revenues in the commercial sector combined with what superficially appears to be an ineffectual response coming from BBC management to counteract such hostility.

Combine this with The X Factor becoming ITV’s vitally important “cash cow” due to historical reasons (ITV would be facing bankruptcy if it wasn’t for this and Britain’s Got Talent), and you have a point of contention between public service and commercial broadcasting that politically goes far beyond what might ordinarily be the case.

It also doesn’t help that the convergence of media via the internet (online video, audio and the written word) is affecting print journalists in the commercial sector, since more and more of them are now showing an anti-BBC attitude as a consequence even if the BBC hasn’t actively done anything to claim their territory in recent times.

Indeed some of the supposed anti-BBC attitude displayed by the current Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw may perhaps be related to the fact that he used to be a journalist, and it is this group that perhaps feel the most threatened by this sea change in the media as a whole.

Therefore it is doubly important that the BBC comes up with a credible (and hopefully) long-lasting PR response to such incidents, even though all of this is essentially meaningless to the Great British Public (some of which might be mildly irritated by the schedule clash) and possibly unimportant to media policy in the longer term.

Because if the BBC cannot win the hearts and minds of any journalists and opinion-formers, then it will end up being essentially toast in the hands of a Conservative government. And that alone is far more important than a trivial clash of programming on a Saturday night.