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24 September 2014
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Jana Bennett

Director of Television

Minority culture, mass civilisation

London, Wednesday 18 September 2002
Printable version

Speech given to the Royal Television Society

Since that "nice man", to quote the bearded prophet who spoke from the stage in Edinburgh, gave me the job of Director of Television, I've been rather sweetly described as one of "Greg's Angels" , a Borrower squirreled away on the 6th floor at Television Centre - or even Yoda, - descriptions which somehow manage to be sexist and heightist, or ageist and heightist… but at least all of them indicate that I might be one of the good guys of broadcasting.


Greg Dyke on the other hand, in the same short few months has gone from being the saviour of the BBC to become the public service devil incarnate.

If you believe some, he is like Del Boy down Shepherd's Bush market hawking the family silver - best Taiwanese silver of course - for a fiver.

If so, what was he doing, hiring me, Amazon warrior of public service broadcasting?

Actually, you might be surprised to know that the phone calls and emails I get from Greg about our output mostly go along the lines of "What are you doing on Iraq?", "How soon will you have some new politics programmes?", "What are you doing on TV about the pensions and savings crisis"?

Not surprisingly perhaps many people have said to me over the last few months - "Jana, nice to see you again. By the way, why did you come back?"

I hope when I sit down in a few minutes you will have some answers to that question. Some sense of why I think right now is such a great time to be involved in British television.

But let me begin with a few words about my time in America.

I had a great time - in fact I had a ball. But my three years in the new world also gave me a perspective on what we have here in Britain.

In America, it is the feature film that is the water cooler 'must see, must talk about' medium and television is, by and large, a commodity, a delivery service for neatly packaged bundles of demographics.

It's generally written about in the business pages, not the news pages. And rarely in the culture pages.

But not in Britain. I'm not sure you realise how lucky you are, how lucky we all are.

People here really care about television. Television here is at the heart of life and of culture. Yes it can sell products, and yes it's also a business. But it's much, much more than that.

Our story consists of aspiring to expand our horizons, extend boundaries, surprise with original new ideas across a range. From Pinter, to Liquid Assets, to Out of Control and Great Britons, the Fimbles, and Daniel Deronda.

I would have said Dr Zhivago, but ITV asked me to mention it in a slot that they have booked later on!

Just over a year ago in America, while I was running a US network, the world turned upside down: for days the skies remained clear of civilian aircraft in an eerie return to pre-aviation days.

The TV airwaves, though humming with repetitive "breaking news", were also strangely empty: devoid of analysis and serious documentary coverage.

And this, in a country which prides itself on freedom of information, plurality and choice.

The news networks remained in overdrive for months, yet under-invested in substantial pieces, while the broadcast networks largely used their news magazines and bulletins to sweep the public (and no doubt the advertisers) along with rousing flag-waving notes of reassurance.

But on the documentary front there was relative silence. There was little room for deeper coverage seeking to understand the terrible events of September 11th, except on PBS and factual cable channels such as my own and Discovery.

Compare this with what was going on in Britain in those months after the disaster across all channels.

American television is often rightly described as a jungle - but it can also be a desert. British broadcasting is a more cultivated landscape.

American television may have patches of wild creativity, but there are huge swathes of banal, unoriginal programming.

British television is a rich landscape, full of surprises and original features. While there are of course some low swampy bits, filled with B list celebrities, don't let's be fooled by typical British self deprecation.

The reality is that British TV remains in rude creative health.

Simon Shaps wrote much the same in Broadcast recently listing some of the great programmes we should all be proud of, from Bloody Sunday, to The Office, Pop Stars to Blue Planet. He's right.

And I suspect that Mark Thompson is not really Rip van Winkle waking after seven years to discover the true parlous state of British TV.

Yes, some American drama is great and some comedy is strong and they know how to produce a high gag rate.

But take a closer look at the flow of ideas across the Atlantic. It's not just one-way traffic.

British production ideas are transforming US entertainment, lifestyle and 'reality'.

Britain has the lead in high quality international news, documentary and landmark series, as evidenced by the Discovery joint venture which puts $275m into British factual output.

Britain brought the quiz show back into American primetime with Millionaire and then introduced acid wit and irony in the form of Anne Robinson.

The BBC's Fame Academy presenter Paddy Kielty is fronting his show Stupid Punts, commissioned by BBC CHOICE, on ABC.

All these are forces for innovation in the North American market.

So let's not get this out of proportion and let's not beat ourselves up.

Let's recognise that the British creative community is dynamic, competitive and that ideas flow across national boundaries.

And let's push for any changes in the Communications Bill that keep British inventiveness and creativity going strong.

Actually, it isn't all about the BBC. It is about the delicate ecology of UK broadcasting, with the BBC a creative force within it.

Much has been said recently about the BBC being too powerful.

It's true that at the moment the industry's ecology in this country is out of balance. The BBC is strong and some people have used this as grounds for criticism.

But IF the BBC were weak, it would not make others stronger. Nobody controls the macro-economic environment.

For the moment the advertising industry and capital markets are still in a dramatic downturn - this combined with the BBC's licence fee increase have put the BBC in a relatively strong position.

But this is a special and recent set of circumstances which may never be repeated again.

Only two years ago, commercial television was storming along and the BBC was under great pressure.

Some pundits bemoaned the BBC's weakness and talked of a time in the none-too-distant future when the BBC's relationship with viewers would simply melt away in the face of so much targeted competition.

It's the growth of multi-channel that is the underlying trend.

And with that in mind - is the BBC really too powerful? Half the homes in the country - and three quarters of children - have digital TV already and those that do spend half their time watching non-terrestrial channels.

It seems we Britons are going in the same direction as the USA with a profusion of channels and choices.

However, our broadcasting ecology will and should always be different.

The BBC has entered the multi-channel world providing digital channels which stay true to the principles of public service broadcasting and original British production while responding to the demand for choice and convenience.

So, while the Reithian principles - inform, educate, entertain - laid down some 80 years ago continue to resonate in today's multi-channel world where power has shifted to the audience, we need to refine the purpose and ambition of the BBC's public service remit.

The BBC means different things to different people, but crucially it means something to everyone. That's powerful and unique.

And it's a huge privilege - and with that privilege comes an equal responsibility.

Just listen to the voices of some viewers and you'll see what I mean.

"My father and his friend abused me from the age of two until I was 17. I was involved with prostitution and was getting beaten up and raped regularly. Can you help me?"

And another.

"My grandfather ran a paedophile ring, which my mother was also involved in. I got pregnant at 12 and my mother and father held me down whilst a man and woman gave me an abortion."

What prompted these extraordinary comments? Was this in response to BBC TWO's recent Hunt for Britain's Paedophiles documentary investigation? No, It was EastEnders.

When EastEnders decided to tell the story of child sexual abuse, it was not a subject they approached lightly.

John Yorke and his team's immediate reaction when they came up with the story was that no one would want to watch it.

To their credit, this confirmed their belief it was the right story to tell.

They reasoned that if EastEnders, with its huge public profile, its ability to reach millions of people, didn't tell this story then we were not fulfilling our obligations as public service programme makers. Our job is to reflect society.

20 million viewers watched the episodes go out. Afterwards we ran an audience helpline with a free phone number which offered people further advice.

We got 400 calls after of the show. The majority of callers were abused by a family member or close family friend. Often other family members had not believed their stories.

For some, the Action Line agent was the first person they had ever spoken to about their experiences.

Yet some people still question whether there should be room in the BBC schedule for popular programmes like EastEnders, Holby City, Spooks, or Monarch of the Glen.

My answer is simple. Absolutely. Resolutely. Proudly.

Should these programmes be competitive? Yes.

We want as many of the people who have paid for the programmes to watch them as possible.

We want them to get the best value we can offer for their hard earned money.

Should we try and put Daniel Deronda up against Doctor Zhivago later this autumn?

Well, this isn't about protecting ITV's advertisers - but about viewers.

It doesn't make sense to force this sort of choice upon viewers who want high quality period drama (both as it happens, written by Andrew Davies) by offering it at the same time.

BBC ONE's controller, Lorraine Heggessey, has suggested a good solution directly to ITV - not through the press - which would allow our audiences to retain a great pre-Christmas season of arts and drama.

And we are not playing games here - it isn't who blinks first… it's about the viewers' interests.

Does that mean we will be sitting down with ITV's, Channel 4's and Five's schedulers - or advertisers - to checkerboard the schedule to protect each other's public service obligations?

It wouldn't work - there are too many good programmes to treat them as a protected species.

No - we need competitive schedules all round, to keep challenging each other to do the best for our audiences.

The BBC must be competitive - we'd be failing in our duty to the public if we weren't.

It is not in the viewers' interests for us to say "this is what we've got to offer, but we really don't care whether you watch it or not".

I believe quality and ratings are not mutually exclusive.

Take the way we covered September 11th on BBC television; or the Jubilee Prom which got the biggest audience for any classical music concert on television in recent years; take the Hunt for Britain's Paedophiles on BBC TWO this summer or Simon Schama's remarkable History of Britain.

These quality programmes were all ratings winners. Were they dumbed-down, cynical ratings grabbers? No, absolutely not.

They illustrate range as well as quality. If you cynically go for the lowest common denominator, chasing maximum ratings, the viewers find you out.

As has often been stated, our portfolio of channels is designed to guarantee something for everyone.

But, while our new digital channels are important, we recognise that we can't make them do the same job as ONE and TWO.

Until the last analogue set has been switched off, and we have a fully digital world, the new digital channels will serve their own audiences and in truth the speed of digital take up was probably over estimated in the past.

That's why BBC ONE and TWO will remain mixed genre channels and why we won't narrow their ambition or appeal in any way.

BBC ONE and TWO will retain their classic public service broadcasting commitment to RANGE of output within each channel.

But we are refining the vision for ONE.

We want to ensure that BBC ONE offers viewers drama and entertainment at the heart of the schedule, but, alongside them, there will be a stronger commitment to current affairs, new, strong documentaries and arts programmes.

This would be more difficult to achieve if Lorraine Heggessey hadn't been successful at using the new investment into BBC ONE to strengthen the channel's dramas and its core and embarked on a three year journey to ensure ONE is contemporary, resonant and appealing to viewers.

This past week alone, there has been powerful drama, Out of Control, BBC ONE's first improvised drama; the Last Night of the Proms and the Children's Proms in the Park; EastEnders, the bedtime dramas and the Naudet brothers' extraordinary 9/11 ninety minute documentary.

There have also been comedy writers new to TV with Harry Enfield's Celeb and there has been team writing on My Family.

A stronger BBC ONE helps us keep pushing boundaries of creativity.

I want the channel to raise its game even further - to find new subjects for drama to surprise viewers; to find new ways of bringing great stories from the world of the arts to a mainstream audience; to create more interactive experiences, from Test the Nation to Fame Academy to the second of a two-part Panorama on Iraq and tonight's You the Judge as part of our Cracking Crime day.

Saturday night remains at the heart of family viewing, and as family life changes, we must continue to re-invent our programming.

In addition to building on what we already have, I want new original thinking about Saturday nights for BBC ONE viewers.

We don't have to spend so much of Saturday nights locked up in purple and pink studios guessing the answers to the same questions - either on ITV or BBC.

We want to throw out the conventions about Saturday nights and BBC ONE and I will back experiments - with the schedule, with the programme mix.

More innovation on ONE will benefit the other BBC channels, the industry and viewers.

BUT I am not ashamed to say we want BBC ONE to be popular - and my goal is to make it popular across the full range of subjects and genres, not to confine that ambition to the obvious areas of drama and entertainment.

BBC ONE will be at the heart of the portfolio of BBC television; it provides a great reason to be together.

This summer showed the audience uniting around events from the Jubilee through to the dramatic, rainy closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

That power to bring so many people together is widely acknowledged as a speciality of the BBC - and perhaps it is unique to BBC ONE of all channels on British television.

But while we know we can do brilliant sports and live events, we need to create television events beyond those fixed points in the calendar.

Live from the Abyss, from the Natural History team in Bristol, will be a bold test of technology and live adventure - as we go deep into the oceans, in real time.

We will learn from this and other events, finding ways to bring new ideas to mainstream audiences.

I am setting aside further events money to make sure we think big about what we can do.

Programmes which will draw people not just to the screen, but also to that metaphorical water-cooler.

BBC TWO will continue to offer its trade-mark approach to programming: big subjects that matter to everybody, but done differently.

It's the channel where you'll always find something new - a new idea, new subject or even just a new 'take'.

But, as importantly, you'll find something enjoyable and, as they say in the States, 'smart'.

No surprise then that BBC TWO will keep its core strength in factual programming.

This Autumn, you can join the rest of the UK in voting for the greatest Briton - the culmination of BBC TWO's year-long interactive initiative.

Other projects have the same huge ambition.

In arts (where we are redoubling our commitment), Restoration kicks off a massive campaign in partnership with the heritage bodies.

Dozens of historic buildings will be thrown open to the public and, some lucky ones, brought back from the brink.

I grew up watching Brighton Pier rot away, so that gets my vote. But the great thing about this is that everybody will have their favourite. Think Greg's might be Wembley!

But in future we'll casting the BBC TWO net much wider than factual. We'll be reinvesting in drama and new comedy.

And, as you might expect from a channel and Controller passionate about re-invention, Jane Root will be finding new ways of pulling other subjects into the mainstream.

TWO's forthcoming disability season, What's Your Problem, shares the experience of people with disabilities. Flesh and Blood is brilliant - if you only catch one thing in the season, make sure its that.

BBC FOUR is an aspirational channel - there for anyone looking for something satisfyingly different from the mainstream.

It offers a consistently different flavour in the mix, from Copenhagen, the first television adaptation of Michael Frayn's acclaimed stage play - to Witness to History which recreates big political decisions such as the City's Big Bang, with the key players being asked to share their part in making history.

But as well as international news, culture, science, arts and history, Roly Keating will broaden FOUR to include comedy.

FOUR's audience may like serious, but they don't want a humour bypass.

In case you think I can't count… there is now going to be a BBC THREE.

I am very pleased and not a little relieved, that BBC THREE will now exist.

Stuart Murphy has been altered by the experience. He started out as "yoof controller", went through young adulthood, and he is now practically at mid life crisis.

But he's kept himself busy, while he waited. In year one, he had a baby, then waited. Year two, another baby but still no channel.

He continued waiting, waited, then finally booked a honeymoon and yes, he can have the channel!

Reminder to Stuart… send thank you postcard to DCMS, with no conditions attached.

BBC THREE will provide young adults with a distinctive public service offering.

It won't be dependent upon US acquisitions or sexy music videos to establish its identity or purpose and it won't kill other digital channels for young adults.

Viewers will see more factual, science, arts, ethics, business and mainstream news as well as good entertainment news - with approximately £10 million more going into the factual mix than first planned.

Above all though, the channel will represent the place for young adults to see the results of a significant investment in new British talent, with a guaranteed diversity of voices and ideas across what I and Stuart Murphy believe will be the widest range of genres of any digital channel.

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about BBC THREE's likely audience.

Don't forget, young adults are much more sophisticated now than they were when I was in my 20's. (Just a few years ago…)

· 66% of the UK's 25 - 34 year olds are in permanent full-time work.
· 71% are married
· 69% have their own children
· 57% have their first mortgage
· 67% live in urban areas

This group of people is smart, cash rich, time poor, hungry for information and have some of the most urgent needs of any group in society.

Contrary to the received wisdom, there is little on TV that reflects their circumstances in the areas of social action, health, money, and yes for sure, British entertainment, comedy and drama.

BBC THREE will be imaginative about addressing this audience's needs - one thing it won't be is conventional.

Stuart has been backing great original British productions including Burn It - a fantastic new independent production rooted in Manchester by a writer new to television, the New Comedy Awards and new British animation (it's about being homegrown, not Homer Simpson!).

I am convinced that BBC THREE will co-exist with others in the digital market - and, happily, so is the DCMS - precisely because it is different and will do things no other channel does.

Now Stuart has kids, the two children's digital channels bring public service values without advertising to the nation's children.

What else can or should BBC television do? No, I am not seeking more channels!

Yesterday's announcement means that the BBC now has the television channels it believes necessary to be a truly successful and responsible public service.

But it's not the limit of our ambition just to have this portfolio. No, we want to make that portfolio work for all our viewers.

So there are things we can do to ensure that projects reach their full potential.

Smart windowing and regular showcasing of programmes from THREE and FOUR on ONE and TWO will ensure all viewers get the benefit of these new investments.

It is, for example, how the upcoming Pinter season is going to work for both BBC TWO and BBC FOUR and how The Life of Mammals David Attenborough series is going to be accompanied by the story of David's Life on Air on BBC FOUR.

And this autumn, the brilliant new series of The League of Gentleman will be on BBC Choice first and then on BBC TWO.

We call it the '24 turnover' technique.

I want the BBC's channels to be distinctive in attitude, offering a range of approach and programmes that will let our viewers choose according to their mood and needs.

The Secretary of State at the DCMS, Tessa Jowell, wants the BBC to provide venture capital for the broadcasting industry, the patron of original production.

I think that's what we mean when we talk of the BBC's need to be a cultural force - the creative capital, the social capital and the intellectual capital, as well as the venture capital.

To be the most creative organisation in the world - to be a creative catalyst for this country - means working closely with the independent sector as well as a strong in-house base of creative producers.

Programme-making is the very soul of the BBC and long will it remain so.

But we recognise the need to renew and reinforce our relationships with the independent sector.

We've made a start with a 27% increase in our investment in the sector this past year, with another rise planned for the coming year.

There should be a creative meritocracy for new talent, so that new ideas are developed and we benefit from the cutting-edge of creativity.

Already the independent sector has embraced BBC Choice. BBC THREE will also be a showcase for the best independent production, with 25% very much a floor, not a ceiling.

We are looking at some of the key issues in our relationship with indies and engaging in what I believe will prove to be a constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue with PACT.

For example, we have already shortened the time it takes to respond to ideas and pitches.

And together we are working on what I hope will be a new structure for repeat fees for independent programmes.

This would help unlock the inherent value in these programmes, especially as repeats provide opportunities for new and different audiences to see great programmes.

If you are in the BBC, you should be in favour of the health of public service broadcasting in this country - not just the health of the BBC.

It is a good thing that ITV has its Doctor Zhivago's, Channel 4 its science coverage, Five arts.

Creative competition makes everyone raise their sights.

I want to play my part in encouraging a UK broadcasting alliance for range, quality and originality.

Not for the BBC's self-preservation. Not for the advertisers. Not even for regulators.

Rather, all of us working together to provide the richest television fare for British viewers.

I think this could be an incredible period in television's evolution.

Today, perhaps for the first time, the industry's voices are in unison on creativity.

Let's turn this unity of voice into united action. Let's make a pact and forge an effective 'Alliance for Creativity' across our industry.

We must seize the opportunity to develop the horizons of our audience with popular, aspirational and original programmes.

Whatever the cynics say, television in the UK still has the power to make a difference.

And public service television in particular should be at the forefront as an enlightening, creative force.

A cultural force at the heart public debate which invests in the nation's creativity and, by offering a cornucopia of diverse experiences, enriches people's lives.

That's what the BBC is for. That's what BBC television means to do.

And that's why I came back to this country.

Because I believe passionately in the power of public service television and its role in the life of the nation.

And to play my part in this key period in our industry's history.


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