Is BBC-1 too popular? 

16 September 2022

In his Listener article of 7 January 1971, Paul Fox, Controller, BBC-1, analyses the variety of his programmes and their relationship to BBC-2.



Cover of "In the Public Interest"

From “In the Public Interest: a six-part explanation of BBC policy” published in January 1971

PEOPLE who write about television fall into two groups. There are those who do it full-time: the Peter Blacks and the Philip Pursers of this world. The best of them understand television and how it works. They help to improve the debate.

The second group are those who write from the fringes of television. They do it as a sideline, combining it with another full-time job. They are television executives manqués: they revel in reviling a profession which they would like to join or, perhaps, rejoin.

Occasionally, a member of a third group emerges to write about television: people from inside television. For the most part, they are too busy doing the job for which they are paid to join in the debate, whether in print or in the endless symposia that take place around the country.

Because of television’s capabilities and its reach, it is not surprising that there are some who seek ways to control it. They call it ways to improve it. The end result would be that they would use it to serve themselves.

Danger signs of one kind or another are always flashing in television, and people who have grown up in the medium get used to living with them. But there is a new one emerging. It has to do with popularity.

‘BBC-1 is too popular.’ What’s wrong with that? ‘If it’s popular, it can’t be good.’

‘The trouble with BBC-1,’ say the hand-wringers, ‘is that it’s only interested in the ratings.’

‘Quality programmes,’ say the head-shakers, ‘have disappeared.’ An insider writing about television can provide facts instead of fantasies. It is a fact that BBC-1 attracts at least half this country’s viewers. It is a fact that BBC-1 spends nearly 50 per cent of its budget on Drama, News and Current Affairs. It is a fact that, in the period 7.00 p.m. to 10.30 p.m., BBC’s serious programmes take up, on the average, 22 per cent of those hours.

These facts require some flesh on them. First, then, the proportion of ‘serious’ programmes on BBC-1. The definition of a ‘serious’ programme in the analysis – undertaken by the BBC Secretariat – from which these figures are drawn is the old one: a programme ‘whose primary intention is informational, educational or critical’.

All Drama was excluded from that 22 per cent because it’s difficult to classify. While my Drama colleagues may quarrel about this, my eyebrows were raised by the choice of 7.00 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. as ‘peak hours’. It is my submission that the peak now starts earlier and ends later. It varies around the country, of course, but it is a fact that the television evening now begins earlier. In millions of households, it begins with the 5.50 News and Nationwide. The latter is unquestionably a ‘serious’ programme – however much they wrap it up in a light-hearted way.

But Nationwide is not part of that 22 per cent of serious programmes. Neither is the Play for Today – not Ingmar Bergman’s The Lie, not Peter Nicholls’s Hearts and Flowers, not John Osborne’s The Right Prospectus. Nor is the Play of the Month included – neither Uncle Vanya nor Macbeth.

The definition of a ‘serious’ programme remains what it was ten years ago. It was agreed at a time when the BBC was fighting back against ITV, when the audience ratio was 30 per cent BBC, 70 per cent ITV, when ITV called even Emergency Ward 10 a serious programme.

Perhaps it is time to redefine a ‘serious’ programme so as to bring into its orbit the Play for Today and the Play of the Month, as well as classic serials and dramatised documentaries.

An up-to-date definition could be: ‘one whose primary intention is informational, educational or critical, whether it be in narrative or dramatic form.’ Inevitably, there will be a subjective element in any analysis based on such a definition. But it is a distinction worth making.

In the month that was put under review – November 1970 (a month which, incidentally, included a week of light-hearted programmes to mark the first anniversary of colour on BBC-1) the new definition would bring in four Plays for Today, one Play of the Month and the Omnibus programme on Modigliani – at least that part of it shown before 10.30 p.m. It would still exclude a lot of Drama. But this is how the proportion of serious programmes on BBC-1 would then look in the four weeks of November: First Week: 27 percent; Second Week: 41 per cent; Third Week: 24 per cent; Fourth Week: 31 per cent. This is a weekly average of 31 per cent of serious programmes during the 24½ hours between 7.00 p.m. and 10.30 p.m.


Chart illustrating the figures in the paragraph above


In the days before BBC-2, BBC television used to aim at about one-third of serious programmes in peak hours. The principle of complementary programming that lies behind BBC-1 and BBC-2 has ensured that this ratio is now considerably higher. Between them, the two networks’ proportion of serious programmes based on the old definition (i.e. all Drama rigidly excluded) was 43 per cent during November 1970. With the new definition of serious programmes (i.e. some Drama countable) the proportion was nearly 50 per cent – all in peak hours. Certainly the proportion of serious programmes was greater on BBC-2. But that is the strength of having two comprehensive public service networks.

One last word on these particular figures: they have changed very little over the last five years – that is, since the start of BBC-2. The proportion of serious programmes (old definition) was two points higher in 1969 and 1967; it was one point lower in 1968; it was exactly the same in 1966.

Back now to the other key fact about BBC-1 – the fact that it spends 47 per cent of its total budget on Drama, and on News and Current Affairs. It is a fact of television life – known to all who work in it – that serious television costs big money: certainly more money than so-called ‘frivolous’ television.

It is a fact that Drama costs on BBC-1 – whether it is a Play for Today like Alma Mater, a series like Softly, Softly, or a serial like The Last of the Mohicans – average more than £21,000 an hour [£370,000 today, allowing for inflation -Ed]. What’s more, those figures are based on the last complete financial year. This year, it will be even more expensive – inevitably so. BBC-1 spends more than 21 per cent of its total budget on Drama. In return, Drama fills just over 9 per cent of our total programme hours.

BBC-1’s expenditure on News and Current Affairs is slightly higher, and accounts for more than 25 per cent of our total budget. In return, they provide nearly 30 per cent of our programme hours. Though many sports contracts are expensive – too expensive, perhaps – Sport, judged strictly on cost per hour, is relatively cheap. And Drama programmes are undoubtedly the most expensive.

Our most popular programmes this season have come, once again, from Light Entertainment: from Comedy and from Variety. Just 15 per cent of our total budget goes to Light Entertainment, which provides about 10 per cent of our programme hours. Those are the statistics: and it’s worth remembering that they refer to such enjoyable and admirable shows as Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son and Up Pompeii!

Are we supposed to be ashamed of these shows – because they are popular? Should we give them up because ‘the BBC should not attempt to compete right across the board with commercial interests’? Why on earth shouldn’t we? Wasn’t it Parliament that insisted on competition?

It’s also worth asking: was it really so much better ten or fifteen years ago? Before Huw Wheldon, there was no regular Arts programme on television. Monitor – a marvellous pioneering programme – was on the screen once a fortnight. Today there is Omnibus – every week throughout the year.

Paul Fox

Before Grace Wyndham Goldie, there was no regular Current Affairs programme on television. She brought in Panorama – forty-five minutes once a week except for its regular six-week holiday. Today there is Panorama – one hour every Monday and no longer taking a summer rest.

There are many other examples of growth. The Tuesday Documentary is established as a regular landmark. So, too, is Play for Today – the only regular outlet on television anywhere in the world for newly written contemporary Drama. The Play of the Month is there every month – the only regular outlet on British television for plays longer than fifty minutes.

Were Softly, Softly not a series, then most of its episodes would be acclaimed by the critics. But because it’s there – superbly produced, expertly written, splendidly played – twenty-six weeks of the year, it’s taken for granted. Where in the cinema’s or the theatre’s offerings, where in publishing, can you find a similar success story week after week for half a year?

Now there comes a different siren song: ‘Let the BBC build on the things that it does uniquely well and what other companies cannot do.’ For one thing, we do Comedy uniquely well. If we had the money, we’d do more.

But that sort of talk has very definite undertones. ‘Stop competing and shift the emphasis to minorities’ is the threat.

More opera perhaps? The cost for a two-hour production: £58,000 [£1.1m]. More documentaries? The cost: about £20,000 an hour. More Omnibus programmes? The cost: about £18,000 [£316,000] an hour.

To make room for these programmes, others would have to disappear from the schedule: Light Entertainment programmes, which average about £15,000 [£265,000] an hour, and Sports programmes, which average about £6,250 [£60,000] an hour. It doesn’t require a particularly sharp intelligence to spot that the BBC’s costs would go up considerably and that the audiences would go down considerably.

What happens then? On the cost factor alone, it’s not hard to foresee the end result: the very existence of the licence fee would be in peril, loyalty to the BBC’s professional standards would disappear. The end would be in sight for public service broadcasting.

Having seen a lot of television around the world, I believe that we have evolved the best possible system: a dual-network public service operation and also a commercial network. In principle, it is a healthy situation, admirably suited for this country, and it is the envy of many others. In practice, the public service needs more money. By and large, the thing works well; undoubtedly, it could work better.

It does seem somewhat incongruous that the BBC provides each day two television and four radio networks for less than the price of one Daily Telegraph.




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