A vision for BBC Two – and the part factual has to play in it
Speech given at the Broadcast Factual Forum
Wednesday 11 March 2009
Check against delivery
When I was writing this speech at the weekend, my son asked me what I was doing. After I'd explained, he looked thoughtful and said, "Its funny isn't it how all the really good channels are the ones with the odd numbers." Suggests there's a bit more work to do to my domestic comms strategy, particularly in that crucial nine to 13 male skewing demographic...
When I was first appointed to BBC Two, after the first congratulations were over, I was surprised by the number of times I was taken aside, and asked in a confidential sort of way, well, of course, it's a great job and everything – but really, what does BBC Two stand for now? Their argument usually went along the lines that, with the arrival on the television block of so many new kids, Two's once unique position had been gradually but steadily eroded, with the result in any game of Channel musical chairs, it would be BBC Two standing looking a bit glum at the prospect of nothing to sit upon....When pressed to explain what they might do to sort things out, the answer was usually that what Two needed was a greater sense of focus. It needed to lock down its identity in a way that would solve the problem once and for all by deciding it would speak to this audience...about these things...in this tone of voice.
Well, as a blueprint for the future it has the virtue of clarity. It might give all of us – producers, commissioners and even Controllers – an easier life. But it would also, I believe, be absolutely and totally the wrong thing to do. A narrowing of Two's ambition, a self-denying ordinance placed upon its internal creative diversity, would, I believe, be both untrue to the Channel's past, and more importantly, hobble it for the future. From the moment when David Attenborough, as Controller of Two, commissioned both Kenneth Clark's Civilisation and Pot Black in the same burst of enthusiasm, there's always been a glorious eclectic variety in the things Two calls its own...Its this heritage that allows the Channel to contain within itself – in mostly happy proximity – programming as diverse as Gardener's World and Mock the Week, Newsnight and Heroes, The Culture Show and The Hairy Bikers. In a television landscape in which the drive towards programming mono-culture grows ever more powerful and pervasive, embracing of the diversity and difference that lies at the heart of BBC Two feels less like a problem inherited from the old world and more like a recipe for distinctiveness in the new. Smoothing out variety or strategising it away seems less interesting than celebrating, refreshing and re-asserting it.
I should stress that this isn't a prescription for a looser, "lets throw it all together and see what results" Channel. This is not "what-ever" tv. On the contrary. Without a very clear vision and the discipline it imposes, the "glorious eclecticism" I mentioned earlier can only too quickly dissolve into the baggy, the unconnected and the straightforwardly puzzling. It will, I think, take a great deal of precision to deliver the mixed economy of programming that, when it works, looks so effortlessly and appropriately "right" for the Channel.
Orchestrating this mix is the most important job the Controller of Two has to do, for it is out of the choices he or she makes – what to foreground, what to cull - that the character of the Channel is created. Of course, this is a part of what all Controllers do; but I think the uniquely porous and flexible identity of Two means there are a greater variety of choices to be made there than in any other Channel. Two can speak in a far greater range of voices and tones than One; it isn't driven by the demographic imperatives of Three; it casts its net over a far wider range of subject areas than Four. Two forges its identity from a more extensive choice of component parts than any other BBC Channel; for me, that's what makes it such a brilliant and compelling place to be. But its also why I know that to take it forward, it's essential to offer those who make the programmes as clear a vision as I can as to how those many building blocks might be re-balanced under my Controllership, to take the Channel into the next phase of its growth.
Two's factual output is at the heart of all these decisions. Two always has been, and remains essentially a factual channel, and getting that balance right in factual is therefore more important than in any other genre.
In a moment, I'll say something about how that mix might work in the future – but before I do so, please bear with me while I outline a little bit of history. One of the great achievements of my predecessors at Two in recent years has been their success in opening up the Channel as an inclusive, welcoming place to a broad constituency of viewers. Adding new genres, new formats and new talent to the Channel mix meant that Two built a relationship with the widest possible definition of its natural audience. The broadening of its reach kept it connected to the reality of the modern world, and ensured that it never became a much-respected but little visited relic, a reminder of a time when the broadcasting landscape was a far simpler place than it is now.
It will always be vital for Two to keep hold of that sense of broadness – and I'll be saying something later about what I think the Channel does best in that area – but I think the foundations of broader appeal are now so firmly in place that there's an opportunity now to re-affirm some of the other values that have always been part of Two's identity.
For me, Two has always been, first and foremost, the intellectual engine room of the BBC. It offers the opportunity to connect the largest number of people with the most stimulating and exciting ideas about the widest possible range of subjects. It isn't afraid of authority – indeed, it understands that the audience expects and welcomes the chance to engage with the best and most interesting minds. Nor does it shy away from complexity, relishing the role it can play in the ongoing national conversation that helps us grasp who we are and where we are going. It recognises that the best factual television nearly always has a proposition at its heart, that it strives to say something more about its subject than just to observe that it's there. And on top of all that, there are times when it does all these things with a sense of verve, wit and pleasure in the unexpected. These are the qualities that have made Two's outstanding factual output so often not just the best in British television, but, I would contend, sometimes among the best in the world.
This kind of ambitious factual programming has never gone away; but, now more than ever, it feels right to make it an even more visible and confident part of the landscape of Two. Changing times ask different things of television. In difficult days, answering the audience's need to understand what's happening out there becomes one of the most important things we do. With its unique ability to respond to this hunger, there was a never a time when it was more important for Two to step up to the plate and offer our audiences what they want from us: the most informed and illuminating sense of how, why and with what implications the world is changing around us.
Programmes that seek to engage with this complexity, not to deny or avoid it, are at the heart of what Two does best. Evan Davis's The City Uncovered, which allowed even a numerical illiterate like me to understand how derivatives worked, delivered genuine insight into why the economy of the entire Western world still teeters on the brink of collapse. In the run-up to the US election, Simon Schama's American Futures explored the complex character of America's past and present in a way that helped make sense of Obama's eventual victory.
And we can see more evidence of the sharper appetite for programming substance when we look at the way Saturday nights have performed on Two in recent months. There, a very varied range of knowledge-based programming, from The History Of Scotland to Iran And The West has shown itself able to deliver very solid and robust figures – sometimes well over 2 million – throughout the whole of peak. Thoughtful, intelligent factual programming has turned these weekend slots into one of the most consistently successful parts of the schedule.
Audiences have found, enjoyed and returned to these programmes for a number of reasons. They're a very vivid contrast to the entertainment shows that dominate the rest of Saturday night television. But I think an additional source of their appeal is their unashamed declaration of being exactly what they are. They are instantly recognisable to the audience that seeks them out as offering a distinctive intelligence and purpose. They are what they are and are proud of it. They're not dressed up in borrowed programme clothing in an attempt to persuade more uncertain viewers that they are something they're not.
This is a strategy that hardly ever works anyway; the viewer looking for more substance is disappointed; others are only marginally engaged. One-size-fits-all programming is never what Two has been about; as I said at the outset, it's the diversity of voices at its heart that makes it what it is. It's my job as Controller to create the framework within which all those voices are harmoniously but clearly heard. That means giving commissioners and producers absolute clarity about where in the landscape of Two their factual programming sits; and which part of the diverse Two audience it's expected to engage with. Armed with that knowledge, I hope they will feel secure enough to let their programmes find the kind of strong, assertive and purposeful voice our audiences are looking for, a confidence in the value of what they have to say that is the enemy of the vague or the bland.
This is not a recipe for populating the entire Channel with wall-to-wall high-end factual programming; in the end, I think absolute hours are less important than the confidence and purpose with which we make the things we decide we want to do. But please take this as a measure of how important I think it is that we get this right, that the programmes are as big – and as engaging - as the ambitions we have for them.
What's needed are ideas that have hard-wired into them a sense of that ambition, of scale and of why-now. Indeed, it's hard to think of a time when there's been a greater need for the kind of intelligent, authored, moment-defining factual series that burst out of the constraints of everything that's gone before to offer us a new understanding of the place in which we find ourselves. I'm not sure I can tell you what these projects might look like; some might be "landmark" series in the classic mode; others might re-invent everything we thought we knew about how we told these kinds of stories. But I think, like Kenneth Clark trying to define civilisation, that I'll know it when I see it; and I think some of you might too. If I do one thing in my time as Controller, I'd like to free up the creative space to give such new ways of thinking and seeing a chance to get made.
When we talk about "bravery" in commissioning, this is the sort of thing I'd have in mind. I'm a big fan of clever, but I'm not interested in niche. I'm not interested in inward-looking, peer-pleasing, self referential television that attempts to make no real connection with what the audience responds to. I can't say too often that for me, intelligent television is too important to be allowed to be small.
But on BBC Two, there's more than one way in which ambition and bigness can be expressed. It isn't always about overnight absolutes. I wouldn't expect all the big ideas we do to be crowd-pleasers – although, as I've just outlined, there's no reason why some thoughtful factual shouldn't perform as competitively in share terms as it does reputationally - but I would expect them to deliver impact.
By this, I mean that they get noticed, discussed, talked about as part of that ongoing national conversation I mentioned earlier, that we have constantly with ourselves about the things that matter. They should be Pick of The Day everywhere. They should be the programmes everyone remembers when trying to sum up what defined a quarter. They need to break through the white noise of the broadcasting landscape. They need to be, in short, an event.
Shaping factual events was one of the key ways in which I tried to drive impact at BBC Four; and there are lessons I learnt there that can, I think, be usefully applied to Two. Grouping programmes together in a way that interrupts the smooth running of the schedule instantly demonstrates to the audience that here is something we think you ought to see – they're a kind of highlighter pen drawing attention to something different. There're particularly suited to Two, I believe, because they can contain within themselves many different ways of coming at a subject – different voices at different moments for different parts of the audience.
But to work really well they have to be more than just a collection of shows that all happen to be about the same subject. As Two's White Season showed so well, at the heart of the most successful seasons is a proposition the audience cares about. It's this central idea that acts as the magnet around which the programming clusters, that provides the backbone and purpose of a season. It's this that makes them work. Its true that the number of ideas powerful enough to sustain such seasons is probably not huge; and it would be a mistake to dilute their appeal by doing too many of them; but to me, they feel a modern and exciting way of refreshing factual output on Two.
Ok, that's the thinkier end of factual. Where does more populist programming fit into this vision of the way forward? Well, our ambitions for popular factual are just as high as for more obviously knowledge based-shows. These are the programmes that connect the Channel most powerfully with the broader audiences it needs to engage, if it is to properly to reflect the modern world. They also inject into the factual offer a much-needed leavening of entertainment and enjoyment, of pleasure, jeopardy and technicolour personality. Man – or this woman at least – cannot live by high-end factual alone.
But at their best, Two's popular programmes speak to the audience in a way that is quintessentially Two, and which secures them a place in the core DNA of the Channel. Take formats. The Channel's stand-out shows in this genre are always, in the end, about so much more than they appear. The format is the entry point, but the take-out from the best programming goes far beyond it. By immersing you so thoroughly and completely in a world, and in the values of the people who inhabit it, a clever format opens up areas of modern experience in a way more conventional factual programming never can.
The Restaurant does more to demonstrate the reality behind the dream of opening up a cosy little bistro than any number of more analytical pieces. Mary, Queen Of Shops has dramatised and humanised the struggles of independent retailers in a way that can only become more illuminating as the climate on the High Street worsens. The Apprentice and Dragon's Den bring something of the culture of business into the homes of millions who might not come to less obviously engaging programmes.
Our best format shows connect us to some of the most pressing and immediate concerns of our audience in a unique way. They take on board the business of real life – the quest for success, the search for fulfilment – and turn it something that millions enjoy. To entertain our audiences is as crucial a part of our task as to inform them, as even that arch high ender, Lord Reith, acknowledged. And anyway, just because these shows are entertaining doesn't mean that they don't have something to say.
I've never shared the condemnatory attitude that dismisses all formatted and popular factual as intrinsically worthless and evidence of the imminent collapse of culture as we know it. Some of my happiest television moments have been spent in front of Grand Designs with a glass of wine in my hand. I went on from being Editor of The Late Show – a pretty high-end gig - to running the first Two series of Home Front, and can't say I felt noticeably stupider as a result. Of course some popular factual can be empty and derivative, but that's not what we want on Two. I have the same ambitious aspirations for our popular factual programmes as I have for their higher-end counterparts because at their best, these programmes are profoundly important to us. They engage the Channel with those broader younger viewers whose presence gives Two meaning beyond its loyalist heartland. They take us directly into the hearts and homes of our audiences. They speak to them, literally and symbolically, where they live. They are the mirrors in which the audience see themselves most recognisably reflected. And they do this is in a way that delivers human values – warmth, drama, passion – into a Channel that always has to struggle against being cool, distant and over-analytical.
But precisely because these programmes are so important, we have to struggle to get them right. In the different factual world in which they operate, they too have to deliver scale and impact. Aim any lower and the result is popular factual that slips past and barely makes a mark, mildly agreeable shows that do no harm but create no love. That's not what we're looking for to define us in the future. The programmes we want are those that try to do big things in a very Two way, in a voice that's distinctively right for the Channel.
I think we can get an idea of what this means – of the qualities the audience looks for in Two's best popular factual – by looking at the overwhelming success of Masterchef, which climaxed in an epic, 5.4 million-delivering, younger-skewing final a few weeks ago. Of course it had a tense human drama at its heart – there can only be one winner, no matter how deserving the contestants – and that's a universal attribute of competitive formats. But it was the values that underpinned the series, and the way they were expressed throughout the contest that I think made it fit so well into the universe of Two.
This was a series about learning things – it rewarded those who could do things well and wanted to get better. It was about watching people blossom and grow in the light of un-looked for opportunity. It was transformational in the most positive and affirmative way. There was competition, and some ended up as losers, but there was no conflict or humiliation. In its respect for those who took part, for the audience and for the very idea of transformation, it was popular factual that managed to be at the same time both dramatically exciting and yet also humane.
The Choir and Maestro, very different programmes, also share many of the same qualities. They too focussed on the people's capacity to develop and change, on the fulfilment that can be achieved by the active help of others. Like Masterchef, they left you feeling rather more optimistic and positive as a result of watching them, a result that feels increasingly appropriate for the tougher times we live in.
But there's another that's just finished whose resounding success caught us all rather by surprise. It really shouldn't have done, because Victorian Farm contained all the ingredients I've been describing as common to Two success; attractively packaged but meaningful content; engaging central characters who grew better at what they did, and worked together to improve their lives; and above all, total immersion in the experiences of another world. A classic Two proposition in fact, where there's more going on than meets the eye, but also a good-hearted intelligent escapist pleasure and a powerful alternative to the challenges of the world outside. No wonder it resonated so powerfully with millions of viewers each week. It's in programmes like Victorian Farm – like Masterchef, like Dragons' Den, like Mary Queen Of Shops – that we see the model for future ground-breaking shows for Two. We can never have enough good ideas in this territory, especially as our biggest successes migrate to bigger Channels – Masterchef is just the latest title to get on the escalator to BBC ONE – so the need is nearly always greater than the supply of good ideas.
So...to sum up then...I'm very aware that I haven't mentioned every manifestation of factual programming that would have taken even longer than this has – but this was never intended to be a comprehensive shopping list for every factual genre. What I've tried to do is share with you a bigger-picture vision of the wider role factual television has to play on shaping the future of BBC Two in the next few years:
A vision in which the diversity of the Channel's different factual voices is celebrated;
A vision in which intelligent, content-rich programming speaks with a refreshed authority to deliver share, impact and distinctiveness;
A vision in which popular factual continues to entertain the audience and connect the Channel directly to the hopes, dreams and anxieties of ordinary people in the modern world;
A vision in which it does so by embracing the humane values that make it distinctively Two, as well as reflecting changed the changed tastes resulting from the tougher times we live in.
A vision, in the end, in which Two is the creative stimulus and the natural home for some of the most exciting and exhilarating factual television around. I've tried to explain some of the ways I hope we might make that happen. I've aimed for clarity, as I think sharing the vision is one of the most important parts of a Controller's role; but the other thing I need to do is inspire you to want to be part of it. If I've achieved that today – if I'd given you just a hint of the rich possibilities, the extraordinary things I think we can achieve together – than that really is job done.