Jay Hunt, Controller, BBC One
Speech to Voice Of The Listener & Viewer Autumn Conference
Wednesday 26 November 2008
Check against delivery
First of all thank you for inviting me to address your 25th annual conference. Since taking up the job in May, I have given many speeches to industry colleagues. I am delighted you have provided me with my first real chance to talk about my vision for BBC One with you the audience.
If a week is a long time in politics, it's an even longer time in television. This time last Wednesday I was in my office with John Sergeant and his dance partner Kristina Rihanoff discussing his decision to leave Strictly. It was a surreal moment, not least because the last time I had talked to John in detail I was the editor of the Six O'clock News and he was a hugely well respected political editor standing outside Westminster. Now I was trying to dissuade him from leaving a dance competition and discussing what he should wow the audience with for his final turn on the floor. As the day unfolded and I found myself being questioned by everyone from The Sun to my old colleague Jeremy Paxman I was struck by one overriding thought: BBC programmes really matter to people.
So, here I am one week later and, of course, it is not just the news of John's last waltz that has dominated the headlines. The Trust findings on Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand have also generated a lot of discussion. It's not in doubt that Jonathan and Russell crossed the line. The broadcasts caused deep offence and have reminded us of our duty of care to the viewers and listeners.
Entertainment is a challenging genre where people are always trying to push the boundaries but that does not excuse what happened. The challenge now is to learn from these experiences and move forward. When Jonathan returns to BBC One in January, he needs to rebuild the audiences trust in him as a broadcaster. I am aware the BBC has a job to do there too.
So where does all of this leave BBC One? BBC One remains the most popular channel in Britain. At the height of a crisis, it is sometimes easy to forget what we do well, day in and day out, to overlook the quality at the heart of the channel.
In the last few weeks it has brought you everything from superlative costume drama like Little Dorrit to memorable factual programmes such as the portrait of Prince Charles. It's showcased the best of current affairs with the analysis of the tragic Baby P story in Panorama and delivered stunning new contemporary drama with Survivors. My challenge is to continue to deliver that range and quality while ensuring that BBC One remains relevant to the largest possible cross section of the audience.
That's quite a challenge. It means constantly renewing the heartland audience. I want this channel to speak as potently to a 35-year-old mum in Stockport as it does to a 70-year-old man in Bournemouth. In any given week, BBC One should contain content that is compelling and unmissable for everyone in this country. That means it needs to feel diverse in every sense of the word.
The recent announcements about moving key production bases outside London will play a critical part in this. I believe fervently that you can only really speak to the whole country if you make content across the whole country. From a Controller's point of view, nothing speaks more clearly to the vision of an inclusive channel than seeing the cornerstones of the schedule being crafted by production teams across the UK. Last week I was in Glasgow where a thriving comedy team are busy recording a brand new sit com, The Old Guys, for BBC One. A few weeks ago, I was in Cardiff where the drama team were buzzing about the latest series of Mistresses. This is how you begin to reflect the nation back to itself. And BBC One will be at the very heart of that conversation.
But it's not just about geographical range on the channel. We also need to talk to a generation we sometimes risk losing. In a competitive multi- channel landscape, many viewers under 50 are not coming to the channel as their first port of call. We can no longer assume they will when they grow older. I came to this country from Australia when I was 13. From that age I grew an affinity with the BBC and BBC One through programmes that spoke to me. From Blue Peter to Top Of The Pops, from Changing Rooms to Ballykissangel. It is more important now than ever to continue to speak to viewers who may have a more tenuous relationship with the channel. That's not because there's something magical about youth. It's because speaking to this audience is critical to the channel remaining relevant. Remaining relevant will be what keeps it at the very centre of the nation's cultural thinking.
So if my first buzz word is range my second is quality. I believe BBC One's future success depends on us being creatively ambitious. And that's been my war cry since arriving in May. So what does that mean?
In drama it's about continuing to be brave. This summer I was delighted to schedule the distinctive legal series Criminal Justice across five nights, creating a powerful event on the channel. That single piece prompted countless column inches and fractious Today programme discussions about the nature of the justice system in Britain today, a conversation prompted by an event on BBC One. In future, I hope we will have more moments like this.
In family drama, BBC One has broken the mould with the spectacular Doctor Who and, more recently, the magic of Merlin. These set pieces of the Saturday night schedule are opportunities for the family to come together and long may they continue.
Our reputation for period drama is unmatched but the challenge now is where do we go next with the historical pieces the audience loves? It's about introducing a new flavour, looking at periods of history through a new prism. Next year, alongside Cranford and Lark Rise To Candleford we will have a different sort of historical adaptation. Andrea Levy's astonishing novel Small Island is being brought to the screen. This book looks at a piece of history, familiar to all of us, in a completely new way. We witness the impact of the Second World War in this country through the eyes of a newly arrived Jamaican woman. This sort of opportunity to see Britain's heritage in a different guise will be fundamental to keeping the channel feeling modern and contemporary.
Single plays will still feature in the mix. Next year Julie Walters is unforgettable in a profoundly moving account of euthanasia, in A Short Stay In Switzerland. Strongly authored pieces like this are part of the very fabric of the channel. But so too are the continuing dramas. EastEnders, Holby City and Waterloo Road still play a vital part, delivering younger, more diverse audiences to the channel. And they aspire to even more than that. We underestimate the public service dimension of these shows at our peril. At a recent conference I attended I was lobbied hard by climate change experts about including a story line about global warning in EastEnders. They understood better than anyone how powerfully a returning drama could bring difficult subjects to a mainstream audience. Turning Bianca green was going to achieve more than several weighty academic papers!
Alongside a strong commitment to original drama, sits BBC One's impressive reputation in entertainment. That remains core to my vision for the channel. You only have to look at the sheer volume of people watching on a Saturday and Sunday night to see the role it still plays in bringing the nation together. I had a strong reminder of the power of that family entertainment just this weekend. On Saturday my husband and I went back to the place where we married. To give you a sense of what that involved we flew to Glasgow, then drove two hours north through the snow into the Trossachs, then skirted a loch for a seven-mile drive along a single track road to a hotel at the very end of a glen. After an epic journey, I walked in and sat down for some lunch. On the neighbouring table was a large extended family having a heated conversation. The grandfather was pitching in, the seven-year-old girl had a view and even the middle-aged dad had an opinion.
What were they discussing? John Sergeant of course. Strictly Come Dancing – the show that reaches parts other shows can't reach. But seriously, this little episode illustrated more than anything the importance those big weekend entertainment shows have in bringing families together, in creating moments that all generations can enjoy. And we need more of them on the channel. I couldn't be clearer that younger viewers who enjoy Doctor Who and Strictly now are BBC One's heartland audience of tomorrow.
Growing that loyal younger audience is also a key role for comedy on the channel. On BBC One that means comedy in the widest possible vein – from great audience sitcom like My Family to the heart-warming Gavin And Stacey, from the standups of Live At The Apollo to Stephen Fry's mesmerising performance on QI. We know it's hard to get right but when we get it right it engages audiences like nothing else. That's why it will continue to feature in the schedule with new shows like Life Of Riley with Caroline Quentin and the topical remaking of Reggie Perrin starring Martin Clunes.
Great drama and comedy paired with unmissable entertainment are vital to BBC One. But I am passionate about the role our factual and current affairs programming plays in engaging audiences. Perhaps that's unsurprising given my background. I spent nearly 15 years involved in BBC journalism from editing the One O'Clock and Six O'Clock News to surviving a fractious election output-editing Newsnight. That experience taught me that even the most difficult subjects can and should be tackled for a mainstream audience. In this respect, you've seen my finger prints on the channel already. Whether it be the extraordinary expose of the pedigree dogs industry that played this summer or Panorama's definitive expose of Primark's working practices. These shows set the agenda. They put BBC journalism at the very heart of the most watched channel in Britain. All of our factual output should have that ambition.
In addition, we need to reengage with core subjects we have sometimes neglected. To complement the BBC's formidable reputation in natural history, I want to bring science back to a regular slot on the channel. The crowds baying for the return of Tomorrow's World can finally rest easy! Next summer a brand new science magazine show featuring a diverse team of presenters will be back on One. Brand new talent in an exciting new format. That's factual on One at its best.
In addition to looking at popular factual on the channel, I want to find a bespoke home for the very best of documentary. From spring next year we will have a slot dedicated to distinctive film-making. On Tuesday nights after the Ten o'clock news we will showcase the best single docs, the most memorable documentary series, the most insightful glimpses into Britain today. Already commissioned for that slot are pieces as varied as a portrait of survivor guilt around the Marchionness to a series looking behind the scenes at the QCs prosecuting our libel laws. This is a chance to put authorship and first-class direction in a dedicated place in the BBC One schedule. There can be no greater commitment to stand out storytelling than that.
Finally it's important not to underestimate the power of news and sport on the channel. BBC One has always had the ability to bring the nation together. In recent months, audiences have tuned in to the Ten o'clock news for Robert Peston's unique analysis of the unfolding credit crisis. On a happier note, the summer was dominated by a series of shared sporting moments, whether it be nail-biting Andy Murray games at Wimbledon or the tremendous success of the British team at the Olympics. Next year Lewis Hamilton is set to provide more edge-of-the-seat moments with the return of Formula One to the channel. The world class reputation of our news and sports coverage provides a real backbone to the channel and it is something of which I am hugely proud.
So that shopping list gives you an idea of what I want to achieve in the years ahead on the linear channel. I am clear that my mission is to continue to listen and to connect with audiences. To make challenging television that sets the standard. To deliver quality in everything that we do from Masterchef to The One Show. But of course in the modern age BBC One is not just something we can assume audiences will sit on their sofas and enjoy. It needs to be part of the digital future with all that implies. Streaming of the channel gives viewers the chance to enjoy content on the move for the first time. In a multiplatform space, BBC One brands need to and indeed are driving real innovation whether it be the recently redesigned Watchdog website which offers consumer advice 24/7 or the magic spell book on the Merlin site which is entrancing younger viewers. In this space too, we need our brands to be powerful and channel defining
When I took this job earlier this year I said it was my dream job. Six months on it still is. It is a huge privilege to preside over a channel that impinges so directly on people's lives. I want it to continue to deliver moments that bring the nation together. I want it to try even harder to connect with the widest range of audiences. I want it to deliver real value to viewers by reinvesting savings we have made in overheads into programmes. And I want creative ambition and quality to define everything that we do. But I am under no illusions. In growing a new heartland to BBC One we will sometimes drift into controversy. Not all of the people will like what we do all of the time.
Every day at 9.45 we get the data that tells us how many people watched our shows the night before. It's now so much part of the routine of my day that I sometimes worry whether in years to come, long after I have left this job, I will still have a nervous tick at 9.45 every morning. But in many ways much more telling than the size of the audience is the calls we get from viewers. I study those religiously because that's where you really sense how the audience feel. On Monday morning I was waiting with trepidation to see how viewers had reacted to the opening episode of Survivors. In the current gloom, would they have enjoyed this apocalyptic vision of humanity virtually wiped out by a deadly virus? Many millions had. This call from a 37-year-old woman was typical:
"What a fantastic new programme. I don't actually watch that much tv but this had me hooked, I was even thinking about it after I went to bed!"
But the key in this job is never to be silly enough to think you've pleased everyone. This call from a 56-year-old woman was one of my favourites. She might not have liked it but she was still engrossed enough to have stuck with it for the whole 90 minutes.
"Oh dear how depressing for a Sunday evenng! I had to force myself to carry on watching this, trying to tell myself it was going to get a bit more cheerful. I'm really not sure that I want to watch any more: deadly viruses that wipe out 90% of the world's population (and if there was 10% left there would have been more people around than we saw roaming the streets...); six random people meeting up one of whom is a murderer, and the others that we know nothing about, but they are all going to stick together – really? And then at the end we get a hint that this was a man-made virus and it was a deliberate plot to to wipe everyone out. Not that that would necessarily be a bad idea, given the state of the world; the only thing wrong with it is that it isn't really the place of any human to play God, is it? A bit too scary for Sunday evening for me. The awful thing is that it's not beyond the bounds of possibility and that give me nightmares."
In this job, you can't always breed consensus. But you can make great content that engages people and gets them talking. That's the conversation I want to be having about BBC One and I am grateful to you for letting me start that conversation today.
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