Alan Yentob, BBC Creative Director

Date: 28.04.2010     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.59

Strictly Public Service Broadcasting: Creative Freedom and Ambition

Speech given at Voice of the Listener & Viewer Spring Conference
Wednesday 28 April

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Good morning everyone

First I want to say – and I really mean it – what a pleasure it is to be here because I have always believed that the VLV was on the side of the angels and it's at times like these that we need to hear that voice, the voice of viewers and listeners speaking up for public service broadcasting.

I must emphasise, that this is not a plea for uncritical support. It is the British public who make the BBC possible and it's the responsibility of an organisation such as yours to keep the BBC honest, as they say, and to hold us to account.

But over the past few months perhaps you've noticed as I have the increasing stridency of those voices lined up against the BBC. The cacophony, much of it generated by newspapers and politicians may well be calculated or lazy or opportunistic but it has certainly seemed louder and more discordant than usual and do you know what... we're not that thin skinned. It's not as if we can't give ourselves a good kicking!

Senior BBC Executives are routinely held to account by our most robust journalists, as anyone who watched Jeremy Paxman interrogating the Director-General – with his usual restraint – last month on Newsnight will acknowledge.

All of which perhaps explains why so many more people of late seem to feel the need to express their concerns about the future of the BBC in a more forthright way. Witness the letter sent to the Observer this weekend signed by some of the most prominent figures in the theatre and entertainment industries. Among them Stephen Frears, David Tennant, Sir Richard Eyre, Richard Wilson, Eddie Izzard. As it happens, the letter appeared to be addressing the Conservative Party but none of this seems especially party political to me.

Oddly enough, a recent comment which stood out was Stephen Merchant's unexpected response to a questionnaire asking what made him cry; he replied "the endless attacks on the BBC by powerful media rivals because they are eroding one of the nation's greatest cultural institutions for their own corporate self-interest".

And then there was David Mitchell the week before: "why are we letting its competitors and the politicians they have frightened or bought tell us that we can't keep it as it is?"

Well in the past week both David Cameron and Gordon Brown have expressed their love and support for the BBC which is good to hear. And it's worth reminding them that 77% of all adults in Britain heartily agree! The BBC they say is an institution to be proud of. And what's more, in a world of rapid media expansion that support is up from the 68% within the last five years. A significant rise.

The BBC has always been the subject of intense national debate and that is healthy and necessary. I've picked out these few quotes because I think they highlight how complex the environment in which the BBC operates has become, an environment made all the more precarious because of the volatile economic and political climate in which we find ourselves.

Make no mistake about it, the regulatory regime and the financial scrutiny under which the BBC operates whether through a government department like DCMS, through the BBC Trust or Ofcom or the National Audit Office or the Parliamentary Accounts Committee... all of these will affect the BBC's ability ultimately, to act effectively, creatively and independently in the best interests of licence payers. The big question today, as it always has been is, can you trust us to do that?

Before turning to the future and how we go forward I want to reflect for a moment on the journey the BBC has been on to get us here. Yes, we have been through a period of extraordinary transformation where the media landscape has been changing at a furious pace, but the truth is, that journey began nearly two decades ago when the BBC embarked on a profound learning curve, determined to prepare for the digital world, in order to invest in a future which we didn't fully understand, but were nevertheless aware would be transformational.

The question we had to ask ourselves, again and again, is how do we secure the BBC's legacy and its values in an uncertain future. We were convinced of one thing, that the BBC would not remain a force to reckon with, at the heart of British culture and British life unless it could boldly translate the virtues and values of the analogue world into the digital age. It was not about imperial ambitions but building on core values and fundamental strengths... about giving priority to news and children's programmes, about harnessing technology to creativity, talent to new ideas – about anticipating and not merely responding to audience needs.

More than 10 years ago in a debate at the RTS in Cambridge entitled the "BBC is out of Control", I made the point that this strategy was not without risk but "if you put the BBC in a box as some suggest we should, that box will soon become a coffin and the BBC will wither away".

And so we did devise a strategy and two new channels to enable us to consolidate and protect our distinctive contribution to children's television. Without these dedicated children's services CBBC and CBeebies – freely available unfettered by adverts and committed to British made television our children would now be left with the ubiquitous presence of animation imports from American and Japanese television. In those circumstances our share and reach would have evaporated and the Playstation generation would have grown up without the benefits of Children's BBC.

And it's worth remembering that the generation of children who were reared on CBBC are today in their early twenties and still remain elusive to many of our traditional broadcasters, including the BBC, which is why we have made it a priority to address their needs on BBC Three. And what's more, on numerous occasions I have been gratified to find so many young parents have learnt to trust the BBC through their earlier relationship with CBeebies. "Oh my God they say it's a God send especially at bed time. Three cheers for the BBC."

Much the same can be said of our early commitment to BBC news online. What would have become of our formidable news machine? Its influence and access would have inevitably diminished unless its reach and its riches were able to keep pace with the digital world.

All this took place well over a decade ago. But what of the past decade? What has the BBC done since then to secure the future of public service broadcasting for the many and not just for the few?

Well Freeview (for a start) – the most significant development in broadcasting in Britain for a generation since... well... Sky. It's easy now to say as we all do if the digital opportunity is not inclusive it will be divisive – but the creation of the Freeview platform was a leap of faith which required the BBC to demonstrate its ability to lead from the front and to show the way to other public broadcasters, and to demonstrate not just to them but to the manufacturers and marketeers that there was a commercial future in free to air digital broadcasting despite the fiasco that was ITV digital.

Now you could say that the collapse of ITV digital was a self inflicted wound – I couldn't possibly comment – but it is a matter of fact that its demise was expedited by the calculated move of Rupert Murdoch in giving away the Sky set-top boxes just as he had practically given away The Times newspaper years before in order to disadvantage (let's not say imperil) his commercial competitors. It was certainly the deathblow to ITV's digital aspirations and mindful of James Murdoch's recently expressed concerns about the welfare of his commercial competitors (driven to despair of course by the ghastly BBC) let's not forget... with what generosity News International came to the support of ITV. Purchasing 17% of its shares in order to prevent another serious competitor in the shape of Virgin Media moving in.

Well that was then and this is now. ITV hopefully is on the mend with increasingly optimistic advertising figures to greet Adam Crozier as he moves in this week – Channel 4 too is in for a time of renewal with a new Chief Executive David Abrahams – soon to join. Freeview is thriving with more than 10 million households signed up, Freesat is limbering up – and Project Canvas is still a work in progress with a number of regulatory hurdles yet to go through – but, it promises to bind public service broadcasters together and to link the TV and computer irrevocably together after many years of fevered anticipation.

And then of course there's the iPlayer – proving that if you put technology in the hands of creative and curious people you can produce startling and powerful results.

So..? What else? "Well there's the programmes stupid," as someone once crudely if pertinently put it.

But that really is the point – a message all of us need to be firmly and consistently reminded of as we drift off into the fascinating hinterland of technology, regulation, market impacts and the rest – important as all that is. It's also more or less the conclusion we have reached at this the next stage of the BBC's evolution – as once again we try to map the future. The foundations as I have just described have been laid. It's now time to put quality first.

William has given you a good sense of the purpose and proposals in the BBC's Strategic Review but before we open up the discussion let me reflect on some of the themes.

The title of today's conference selected by the VLV couldn't be more apt – "Strictly Public Service Broadcasting: creative freedom and ambition."

It explicitly acknowledges the seriousness of the debate ahead while implicitly reminding us that still includes the promise "to entertain the nation".

Strictly Come Dancing as you will know evolved from another broadcasting institution called Come Dancing which was put on the shelf for a decade or so, (by me as it happens) then dusted off and rehabilitated, or rather re-engineered, until it was fit for purpose for a new era of broadcasting, and along with another much loved golden oldie – Doctor Who it has been revived and restored to achieve national treasure status once again.

Entertainment will always remain part of the Reithian trinity – "to inform, educate and entertain". Part of the BBC's purpose and rasion d'etre, if we are to continue to retain the affection and the attention of the British public. But let's do it with flair, with imagination and with intelligence too – let's do it with real conviction.

Now for some people trying to define "quality" might be a tall order – but not for me – I grew up in the North of England and our family who worked in the cloth trade had a benchmark which applied equally to all textiles and garments and to all radio and television programmes. It was called "the Uncle Isaac test".

A garment would be grasped, no matter who the wearer, between thumb and forefinger (like this) – and an instant and unerring judgement would be passed. "Now – this is quality." On the other hand if it were thumbs down, a slow hissing sound would follow (tsh tsh tsh) with a doleful disapproving shake of the head.

Now I don't want to give the wrong impression here – Uncle Isaac was a very shrewd judge when it came to textiles, but his high-handed judgements about what was good or bad on television and radio could seem a little... well... arbitrary.

Happily with our current set of commissioners and channel controllers I do believe we are in safer hands.

Now you may laugh at Uncle Isaac's approach but let me tell you that when asked what he meant by "Civilisation" – Lord Kenneth Clark – surely one of the surviving deities of serious-minded television replied that he didn't know, but he recognised it when he saw it.

Well, quality in television is a bit like that, some of it is very easy to recognise but some of it can be harder to spot.

For instance, let's talk about BBC Three because people do – particularly so called, critical friends of the BBC. Who I suspect haven't even applied the Uncle Isaac test (that is they haven't bothered to watch the programmes) but don't hesitate to criticise them.

Well I have, and by and large I'm impressed. Intelligent, thought provoking television addressing a younger audience who are increasingly hard to reach, is becoming a hallmark of BBC Three's output.

OK, so the titles – Blood, Sweat And Takeaways, The Autistic Me, Young Dumb And Living Off Mum – may not be to everyone's taste but they do appeal to the target audience, they are eye catching and they entertain. Blood Sweat And T-Shirts took a group of British teenagers to India to witness for themselves the conditions under which the clothes they buy are made. The series attracted record numbers of younger viewers and demonstrated that they too want something in their lives alongside X Factor.

There have been three series under the Blood And Sweat banner and all of them have found a contemporary way of looking at the complex and arguably not very TV-friendly subject of globalisation and its impact on the developing world from the food industry to clothing to luxury goods. And the channel is not only making these programmes, but finding ways of doing them that are compelling for young audiences. And as intelligent TV has always done, from Seven Up onwards, it will continue to evolve in shape and format as well as in its content.

Recently the channel's women's season Girls On The Front Line has gained critical praise and viewer loyalty for an innovative approach to a deadly serious subject, confronting the horrors of war and rape in Afghanistan. The last film in the series a documentary on women's rights in Afghanistan got an AI – audience appreciation – of 95. This is the highest AI of any factual programme on any channel that we can remember. The channel has grown in confidence under its controller Danny Cohen and its reach and share continue to impress (share up by a staggering 18% year on year). Propelled not by opportunism or Eastenders but by a determination to raise the stakes.

At 8pm tonight on BBC Three before the final election debate, there's an hour-long election special specifically aimed at first time voters and one of a series of reports from seasoned journalists like Robert Peston and specially commissioned interviews with each of the party leaders. There is nothing tokenistic about this; the channel is devoting substantial prime time space in its attempt to introduce an often reluctant audience to the important themes of democracy and citizenship.

So BBC Three is doing an important job addressing a generation who could well be in danger of missing out on public service broadcasting. This channel is emphatically not a casualty of the Strategic Review nor is the BBC's ardent wooing of this audience a trivial pursuit. We are determined to raise the bar to ensure that there is an audience for BBC services in years to come and not a gaping hole.

BBC Three of course can't be looked at in isolation. On radio, on television and online we are increasingly looking across the portfolio of channels and services to maximise the value of the investments we make and to increase the impact the BBC can deliver with a collective approach.

That's why the Knowledge strategy, developed as part of Creative Future three years ago, is so crucial to the success of the next few years.

The augurs are good. In Arts and Music, in Factual programmes the BBC is increasingly joined up. Witness the scale and creative ambition of the current Science Season which is led by BBC Two but embellished and embraced by radio, the rest of television and the web.

From Brian Cox's The Wonders Of The Solar System, to How Earth Made Us, to tonight's debut of Michael Mosley's fascinating new series The Story Of Science.

And for the Arts and Music there is a new paradigm which will become more influential in years to come. A group of key creative leaders from across the BBC including Roger Wright, Mark Damazer, Janice Hadlow et al has transformed our ability to plan ahead more ambitiously and imaginatively than we‘ve been able to do before.

This led to the unprecedented success of the recent Poetry Season prominently scheduled across all media and enthusiastically supported by BBC Leaning. With similar ambition and foresight a wide ranging Opera Season championed by BBC Two, BBC Four and Radio 3 is scheduled to begin in May and in the New Year there'll be a Literary Season spearheaded by the novelist Sebastian Faulks who celebrates the British novel by exploring the way its greatest characters have mapped and inspired the British psyche.

Another aspect of the portfolio approach in television being pursued by Jana Bennett and her team in the light of the Strategy Review is a more complementary approach to commissioning on BBC Two and BBC Four with greater emphasis on the key genres outlined in the review.

There are some important developments for BBC Two, a greater emphasis on Drama and Comedy, more Knowledge content and less Sport, a stronger platform for the output of BBC Films and from this year an extra investment of £25 million to support more distinctive output.

Meanwhile, Four's fledgling days, when critics felt they could dismiss it as a mere ghetto for arts, are over. Its top programmes are delivering more than a million viewers, and it has become a fine showcase for the best of our valuable archive content.

And what is often overlooked is the cumulative impact that the windowing strategy can have on the audience reach and share of a channel like BBC Four. Andrew Graham Dixon's The Art Of Russia for instance was viewed 3.6 million times and has extended the success of a franchise that has already looked closely at the Art of Spain and Italy.

Welcome though the contribution is of Sky Arts, bringing some excellent programmes to viewers who subscribe it can't reach the range and scale of viewers available to a channel like BBC Four.

Elsewhere, the simultaneous transmission of Neil McGregor's' 100 Objects on Radio 4 and David Dimbleby's Seven Ages Of Britain in the heart of BBC One's prime time schedule is a signal I believe of the serious intent behind our commitment to put quality first.

Both series were supported by a prominent marketing campaign and a Culture Show special on BBC Two introducing the Radio 4 programmes to a television audience. The Culture Show is back on BBC Two, on song, and one hour in length. And BBC One debuts next week a four-part series on modern art made in partnership with the V&A and scheduled bang in the middle of prime time at 9pm.

These initiatives already underpin our promise to extend the BBC's partnerships with other broadcasters to cultural institutions and reflect our determination to share with them our archive and the know-how and technology which will enable them to capture and distribute their own archives far more effectively than has so far proved possible.

We promise to build on and learn from the success of recent collaborations with the British Museum, the Henry Moore Foundation and Tate Britain, the British Library and imminently with the V&A, who alongside the Modern Masters series on BBC One will host a two-week exhibition featuring the work of the four modern masters, Dali, Warhol, Picasso and Matisse.

I must confess that I'm immensely proud of the progress that the BBC has made over the past 18 months on radio and on television – confirmed by the sweeping success of BBC Television at the recent RTS Awards.

The emphasis in the Strategy Review is genuinely focused on ensuring that the BBC plays to its strengths over the next few years. Shifting an ever increasing proportion of spend directly into programme content and prioritising those genres which will define the BBC's role in years to come.

Under the Strategy Review the BBC is proposing to allocate at least 80% of its licence fee on the creation of UK content. By contrast it's worth noting that programme spend currently accounts, for less than 40% of Sky's operating expenditure and this includes the money spent on sports rights and American films.

The BBC investment in content, including its commercial subsidiaries, contributed at least £7.5 billion to the UK's creative economy last year supporting jobs, and generating at least £2 of economic value for every pound of the licence fee.

There are of course many other issues you will want to raise and that I haven't had time to touch on here:

  • The 25% reduction in our web spend for instance
  • Placing a limit on our investment in local services
  • The closure of 6Music, of BBC Blast, of BBC Switch and the Asian Network

Are these the right choices and how much will these services be missed?

We don't yet know the answers to these questions but boundaries have been drawn and difficult choices have had to be made. I think that by and large they are the right ones. We shall see.

Meanwhile, our commitment to you and to the viewers and listeners who you represent, is that we will do our utmost to continue to enrich the public space that we are privileged to occupy. And we will do our absolute best to fulfil that promise to "put quality first".

Because, if we succeed in doing so, the BBC will continue to make an important contribution not just to the quality of programmes but to the quality of life in Britain.

Thank you.