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Peter Fincham

Speeches

Peter Fincham

Controller, BBC ONE


BBC ONE - Risk, Creativity, Challenges and Audiences

Speech given to the Royal Television Society


Monday 16 October 2006
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Good evening and thank you to the RTS for inviting me along.

 

It's good to be able to share some thoughts about BBC ONE in this semi-private setting, among friends and colleagues and one or two former colleagues.

 

I say semi-private because one thing I've learned since being Controller of BBC ONE is that there's a public dimension to anything you say.

 

I made a speech not long after I joined at the Edinburgh Television Festival and, as a new boy anxious to make the right impression at the BBC, I submitted it to the press department for approval.

 

It came back with various encouraging comments and written in the margin on quite a few of the pages was the word 'headline'.

 

I thought this was great news and that I was writing attention-grabbing stuff, until the penny dropped and I realised that what was meant was 'careful, say that and you might get a headline'. 'Watch out – headline coming'.

 

And it's true, in this job not all the headlines you get are the ones you want.

 

But tonight I've decided to throw caution to the wind. I've ignored the press office – excellent as they are - and what you're getting are my pure, unexpurgated thoughts.

 

Take my current plan to run EastEnders seven nights a week, or the news that the new peak-time Panorama's going to be fronted by Noel Edmonds.

 

These are stories that the press office would say need 'careful handling'. But I say, to hell with it.

 

Looking out at this audience tonight, I must admit to a certain schizophrenia. For 17 years I was an independent producer. And for 17 months I've been a broadcaster.

 

I greatly enjoyed running a commercial, profit-driven business, but I feel entirely at home in the public service environment of the BBC.

 

I was a chief executive, responsible first and foremost for the bottom line; and now I'm a channel controller, responsible above all for the programmes.

 

I've been an agent promoting talent; now I'm on the other side of the fence, employing talent. Like a televisual Joni Mitchell, I feel I've looked at life from both sides now, and I can confirm that it's possible to spend years in the indie sector then join the heart of the television establishment without burning up as you enter its unique atmosphere.

 

I remember a meeting that took place six or seven years ago at the offices of Endemol in Bedford Square. I don't think I'm breaking any confidences here.

 

A certain satellite broadcaster had had the idea of investing in and creating an indie channel, which would play secondary transmissions of all the programmes we made for the main broadcasters.

 

The idea didn't stack up, to be honest – we simply didn't have the rights to do anything in the secondary market. This was that dark and distant era, the late Nineties.

 

But we'd all agreed to come along, probably to see what our friendly rivals had to say.

 

Tiger Aspect was there, Hat Trick, TalkBack, one or two others. It's one of the oddities of indie life that you don't see each other's offices often and I dare say part of our motivation was to check out Endemol's boardroom and see whether it was larger than our own. It was.

 

When the meeting was over, somebody produced a bottle of something and one of the indies said, come on, let's drink a toast.

 

To the common enemy, he said. Who's that, I asked? The broadcasters.

 

We all laughed, but I felt then as I do now: that that couldn't be right.

 

What unites broadcasters and producers – the challenge to come up with new ideas to entertain audiences, a preference for shows that work rather than those that don't – is greater than what divides us.

 

We're different cogs but in the same wheel. Is it better to supply or to be supplied to? I get asked that a lot now.

 

The truth is, both have their upsides and downsides. Run a channel and you have the challenge, and the satisfaction, of shaping a schedule, making choices, backing instincts. You get to decide.

 

But you don't get to make. Programme makers are the real heart of television. When I worked outside, I thought that broadcasters would have a jaundiced view of their suppliers to match their suppliers' jaundiced view of them. I was wrong.

 

If you're in the business of commissioning programmes, you're just glad that they're there.

 

Take BBC in-house production, now part of the newly-created BBC Vision. When I was an indie, this was an unknown world to me. Discovering the strengths and the range and the creativity of in-house production is one of those unexpected pleasures when you arrive at the BBC.

 

Where once I saw it as a competitor, possibly with unfair privileges and access, I went in about five minutes to being its greatest fan.

 

Not surprisingly, if you think about it, because this mixed economy, of indie and in-house supply, is the best possible model from a broadcaster's point of view – if only you can get the balance right.

 

If you're running a channel that commissions as much original material as BBC ONE, there's no pipeline that you'd want to close.

 

Of course, getting that balance right isn't easy. It's a bit like constructing a satisfactory landlord and tenant act – tilt the balance too far in one direction and you drive landlords out of the business, tilt it in the other and life for tenants becomes miserable and unfair.

 

My sense is that the BBC is doing quite a lot better than before. I went to visit a very well-known indie last week – I won't name them, it'll just embarrass them, but they're sitting on table eight – and asked them, as is my wont, how we were looking to them. How was our commissioning system working out?

 

There was a long pause and some nervous shuffling around the table. Come on, I said, blurt it out. Well it's fine, they said. We're getting clear messages, fast responses, we're working with people we like and respect, no complaints.

 

What?! That can't be right. 'Indie loves dealing with the BBC.' Now that's a headline for you. I'm not saying that this survey was particularly comprehensive, but I would say this – this stuff matters to the BBC. We want to get it right.

 

We've got a few bad habits – I always think that if the BBC thinks it isn't talking to indies enough, its first instinct is to hold a two-day conference called Talking To Indies with a range of internal speakers – but its heart is in the right place, believe me.

 

Of course you might say, who am I to judge? Haven't I lost perspective in my 17 months in the job?

 

Many of you will have visited the peculiar glass-walled boxes we controllers work in. They've been compared to goldfish bowls, or aquariums.

 

I'll tell you what they put me in mind of. Remember Everest double-glazing? You only fit it once, so fit the best.

 

Remember dear old Ted Moult, so effectively insulated from the outside world that he couldn't hear a helicopter landing on his own lawn? Well I'm fighting hard to avoid that.

 

Ted Moult, in his double-glazed Nirvana, couldn't even tell which way the wind was blowing, and that would be a handicap indeed in today's television when the winds of change are blowing forcefully, and in all sorts of directions.

 

I wonder what a time-traveller from an earlier age of TV would make of it. One of the early Doctor Whos, perhaps. Suppose William Hartnell landed in 2006, got onto his computer and typed 'media trends' into Google.

 

That's assuming he knew what Google was, or had a computer, or could type.

 

He'd be forgiven for thinking that television, in the sense that he understood it, had ceased to exist. Not because there isn't a lot of it about – there's tons.

 

But it's not what we tend to talk about. We like to talk about the future. Doctor Who would understand that – he's a time lord.

 

We like to talk about new media, future media, of video on demand, of streaming, of webcasts, podcasts, user-generated content, content that's uploaded, and downloaded, dragged and dropped. Understandably, too.

 

We're in the middle of technological revolution which is as dazzling as anything you could find in the Tardis. And none of us want to get left behind.

 

Take user-generated content. I'm as big a fan of it as anybody, and I was delighted to find that within two days of launching the new BBC ONE idents recently, people were posting beautifully crafted spoofs on You Tube.

 

My favourite, which you might have seen, was based on the shower scene from Psycho, in which as the blood – conveniently coloured red to reinforce BBC ONE branding – soaks down the circular plughole, the new BBC ONE graphic circles emerge. That's one we might use, maybe just before Songs of Praise.

 

YouTube's great. Google's great. It's all great. But if the conclusion you draw – and some people love drawing it - is that television is over, I think you might just be wrong.

 

The one simply doesn't follow from the other. I read an article in the media section of the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, by Jeff Jarvis. Not sure who Jeff Jarvis is, but he sounds like a man who keeps his nose to the ground.

 

The headline – so unremarkable as to hardly grab the eye - was 'Television is dead'. This is what Jeff said: 'All the old definitions of TV are in shambles. Television need not be broadcast. It needn't be produced by studios and networks. It no longer depends on big numbers and blockbusters. It doesn't have to fit 30 and 60 minute moulds. It isn't scheduled. It isn't mass. The limits of television – of distribution, of tools, of economics, of scarcity – are gone.'

 

Anyone here still got a job? Elsewhere in the article, Jeff says 'My teen son and his friends are getting hooked on new series not via TV but through the web and iTunes.'

 

Ah, Jeff's teen son and his friends – I feel we know them well. They have a great life – more media choice than ever before, gadgets we never dreamt of, chatrooms, websites, iPods. The only downside is having Jeff standing in the corner of the room trying to work out what they're up to.

 

This sort of breathless over-enthusiasm for the overnight destruction of television is reminiscent in some ways of the dotcom boom of the late Nineties, when all conventional businesses were apparently heading for the scrapheap.

 

It also reminds me of the late Sixties – yes, I can just remember them – when a bloke I met in a youth hostel assured me that Western civilization was on its last knees and the future lay in self-sufficient collectives living in Wales.

 

The trouble is, it's missing the point. Conventional television – old media, linear, whatever you want to call it – and new media don't exist in opposition to each other. In fact, they're perfect partners.

 

Jeff Jarvis assumes that where technology leads, our tastes will follow. He thinks that to embrace the new, it's necessary to reject all that's familiar. I think he's wrong.

 

Any anthropologist will tell you that our ancestors, although they lived in caves, had exactly the same brains and bodies that we have. Evolution just doesn't move that fast.

 

I guess the equivalent to those cave-dwelling ancestors is people who sat in front of cathode ray televisions with a choice of two channels, the BBC and ITV. Nowadays they've got hundreds to choose from.

 

And yet the evolution of taste, like evolution itself, is a very different thing.

 

What's been on my mind this morning? The concluding part of Sandy Welch's wonderful adaptation of Jane Eyre, which was watched last night by seven million viewers. Jane Eyre had been widely admired and acclaimed – quite rightly in my view.

 

Adaptations of classic novels don't come much better than this.

 

Does Jeff Jarvis' new world of television mean there's no room for adaptations of Jane Eyre? And if so, is that something we've gained? Or something we've lost?

 

People like programmes. Seems like a pretty obvious thing to say, but in our noisy and novelty-driven world it can't be said often enough.

 

They also like, in my view, an intelligently-balanced linear schedule. Yes, of course video on demand will enable us to create our own schedules and time-shift programmes at will. But we won't want to do that all the time, will we?

 

Video on demand is to linear viewing what the microwave is to conventional cooking. Quicker, more convenient, more attuned to a busy, modern life. But it won't improve the flavours of the cooking.

 

User-generated content is a wonderful thing, but it won't simply replace the professional stuff. There's such a thing as a user-generated garden shed – you buy it from Homebase and put it together yourself.

 

Or there's the other sort, which I must admit I prefer – you get somebody else to do it for you. The two markets don't cancel each other out – they co-exist.

 

I like to get somebody else to do my DIY for me because I'm short of time. We all are, these days. And this can lead to the assumption that as we get busier, and modern life gets faster, our attention spans get shorter.

 

In the future, a short clip on YouTube might be all we've got time for. Sounds plausible, doesn't it, but the evidence doesn't back it up.

 

I bet that a good proportion of you – a slightly higher proportion than I'd have liked - spent two hours last night watching Prime Suspect. You couldn't have done that 30 years ago – TV detective series were an hour long.

 

Ten years ago, the popular factual entertainment series on BBC ONE were Ground Force and Changing Rooms – great shows in their time, 30 minutes long, light soufflés you might say.

 

What are the big formats of today? Who Do You Think You Are? and The Apprentice would be good examples. Like Ground Force and Changing Rooms, formats that have graduated from BBC TWO to BBC ONE.

 

And what's the difference? They're proper three course meals - longer, deeper, more challenging, more involving than their predecessors.

 

Wall to Wall, who make Who Do You Think You Are?, assume that a mainstream audience will take an interest in the difficulties faced by the Armenian community in Istanbul in the last century, or the genetic make-up of families who emigrated from Jamaica to Cardiff.

 

And what do you know? They're right. No over-simplfying, no dumbing down, no stooping to some imaginary level of modern taste.

 

More importantly, formats like Who Do You Think You Are? and The Apprentice have a real presence in new media. These shows are the very ones which are pioneering on a whole range of different levels, and they've innovated by harnessing the power of conventional television to interest viewers in the possibilities that lie beyond.

 

Not surprisingly, perhaps. If you keep your feet on the ground, and rely on common sense, it's reasonably logical.

 

The BBC video on demand trial with ntl and Telewest drives viewers to – guess what? – predominantly BBC ONE programmes. Likewise our IMP (what is to become iPlayer) trial.

 

And it's BBC ONE which heads the line-up in Virgin Mobile's new broadcast TV service – the first of its kind in the UK.

 

Not because BBC ONE has jumped to the front of the queue and said 'me first', but because the mainstream fuels new media take-up like nothing else.

 

Next year we're launching a new series called Play It Again, made by Diverse. It's about well-known people learning, or re-learning musical instruments. It takes them back to childhood, to re-meet music teachers who may have encouraged them too little, or maybe pushed them too much.

 

It features Robert Winston learning the saxophone, Bill Oddie the electric guitar – and many others.

 

It's that characteristically modern thing, a formatted celebrity series, leading each week to a scary public performance which may make a trip to the jungle seem like a tea party.

 

It's an arts series, an educational series, a music series. And it's also a real example of what we call 360 commissioning.

 

Accompanying the television series will be a series of BBC events across the UK where people, of all ages and abilities, beginners and those returning to a musical instrument, will have the unique opportunity to come together and play or sing with members of the BBC Orchestras and BBC Singers.

 

There are also plans for related Play It Again programming on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Radio 3.

 

Will Play It Again succeed as popular television? Too early to tell. I would certainly hope that it will reach a big audience. We'll get a sense of that partly through the ratings, but partly through the take-up of the outreach campaign.

 

How nice that we're getting to a point where it isn't just size of audience but the quality and depth of experience that counts.

 

I'm not saying that large audiences don't matter. They do, and we love them. We're all used to the idea that mainstream terrestrial channels' share of viewing is declining year on year.

 

But unnoticed by many, that decline is slowing down and in some places has stopped.

 

For BBC ONE, our share in peak now is 0.4 points lower than a year ago. For ITV1 - and I only mention this for the sake of thoroughness - it's 2.0 points, i.e. five times as much. In digital homes, now more than 70% of the country, our share of viewing in the past year has gone up by 4.6% - this is a greater increase than any other channel.

 

Now that's not what the script was supposed to say. At the moment, absolute audience numbers for terrestrial and for digital are still a long way apart.

 

We typically compare BBC ONE to ITV1, BBC TWO, Channel 4 and five.

 

Then we compare the digital channels to each other. It's a two tier economy. Three things maintain this differential between these soon-to-be-merged worlds.

 

One is technology – 30 per cent of the audience are still watching in analogue. That's going to change, of course. The second is habit and loyalty. An ingrained tendency to gravitate to familiar channels. And that's going to fade.

 

But the third factor, and the one that matters, is that what channels like BBC ONE put in front of you is a mixed genre of original first-run programmes. That doesn't need to fade. It can grow.

 

When we've lost the distinction between terrestrial and digital, it will be replaced by a new distinction – between channels that originate, and channels that don't.

 

And between channels that have range, and channels that are niche.

 

Because we take these mixed genre channels for granted, I don't think we treasure them enough. Because they've been around for years, they can sound like something from the past. They're not.

 

When I was growing up – this isn't an exact analogy, but it's got some similarities – department stores were sorry places. The world seemed to be passing them by. You could have been forgiven for thinking they were in terminal decline. No, they weren't.

 

They just needed refurbishing, refreshing, they needed to be made modern. Now look at them. Try getting into Selfridges on a Saturday morning – you're trampled to death in the crush.

 

The equivalent of Selfridges on a Saturday morning, you might say, is a mainstream channel on a Saturday evening. Seventy per cent of the population have access to up to 400 channels, but for the last two Saturdays more than 15 million people have come to two of them as BBC ONE and ITV1 take position and fire arrows at each other.

 

Robin Hood versus Ant and Dec, Strictly Come Dancing versus the X Factor – these are the high street battles of modern television.

 

Am I getting carried away in seeing BBC ONE as Robin Hood, bravely trying to land a blow against the mighty forces of ITV? I probably am. Maybe because it's the image of Simon Schapps as the Sheriff of Nottingham that appeals to me. Or maybe as Guy of Gisbourne – he's much better looking.

 

Our Saturday night schedules at the moment are full-blooded affairs, and indeed one of the pressures on television today is the pressure to scale up.

 

In a modern world of plasma screens, Hi Definition pictures and 5.1 digital sound, a cinematic experience is what the viewers demand, and what we've got to supply.

 

When you supply top production values, viewers love them. Look at Planet Earth.

 

They don't come cheap, though they certainly come a lot cheaper in the UK than in the US.

 

When our new thriller, The State Within, which is centred around the British Embassy in Washington, comes out in a few weeks, you'll see something that has production values comparable in all ways to 24, or Lost, or to any of the big American blockbusters, but made for a fraction of the price.

 

Overall, I would argue that our output represents extraordinary value for the viewers. The entire BBC ONE schedule costs each viewer £3.52 per month. I'd call that a bargain. A Sky subscription can be over £50.

 

Not everything's a blockbuster, of course, and it's certainly not all about Saturday nights. The range and variety of a mainstream schedule is at least as important if it wants to hold its head high in a modern, competitive world.

 

There's a way of running a mainstream channel that gives the viewers a bit more of what they like most, and then a bit more again.

 

I can see the temptation because the short term effect is to shore up audiences.

 

Soap half hours on ITV1 have been creeping up, for instance. Last week there were 12 – six Emmerdales and six Coronation Streets. By comparison, our four episodes of Eastenders feels positively restrained.

 

I make no criticism of ITV for this – they are a commercial, competitive broadcaster who quite rightly want to maximise audiences. But I suspect in the long-term that greater variety will bring greater rewards.

 

During the summer, as you may have read, BBC ONE beat ITV1 in peak time for 11 consecutive weeks. This had never happened before.

 

Throughout that period our 'soap deficit', if you want to call it that, was either four to 11 and occasionally four to 12. The move of Panorama from 10.15pm on Sunday to 8.30pm Monday is an important change for BBC ONE, but it wasn't something that I instigated in order to get a pat on the back from the Panorama team.

 

Pats on the back, by the way, not exactly being the Panorama team's style.

 

It was because, looking to the long-term, I think it is vital that the maximum number of genres work for BBC ONE, and to work properly they need to be in peak.

 

So I want to see arts in peak, current affairs in peak, specialist factual in peak, comedy in peak.

 

Drama and entertainment are of course absolutely core to any mainstream channel's output, but drama and entertainment alone would eventually limit range.

 

A rich, popular, intelligent, high quality mix. That's the recipe for BBC ONE and always has been.

 

This autumn it's there in spades. Jane Eyre, Robin Hood, The State Within, Who Do You Think You Are?, Strictly Come Dancing, Spooks, The Royle Family, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, One Life, Imagine – modern, non-formulaic, ambitious television.

 

Journalism on BBC ONE is as strong as its been in a long time. Our 10.00pm News is the acknowledged market leader, Panorama has been making waves with programmes of real impact like its recent investigation into corruption in football, and the renaissance is reaching those parts of the schedule, and those programmes, that don't get talked about often enough.

 

Question Time, for instance, has an audience which is remarkably stable and has even risen between 2005 and 2006, a real achievement in the current climate.

 

It's the same story for Sport, as our spectacular performance in the World Cup showed. And this confidence and sense of purpose is also there, if I may be bold enough as to say so, in BBC ONE's marketing.

 

This room probably divides between those who like our new idents and those who don't. You won't be surprised to know that I'm firmly in the former camp. The formula for getting this right is no different for me than for any of my predecessors at BBC ONE: root out good ideas, measure your risks, back the talent.

 

That doesn't mean that the judgements aren't tricky ones. Take backing the talent: usually that means getting behind the people on screen. But not always.

 

Shortly after I joined last year, I received the unwelcome news that Trinny and Susannah were defecting, leaving behind a secure berth on BBC ONE and a successful format in What Not To Wear.

 

Faced with a difficult choice, I decided to back the talent, in this case Vicki Barrass and Tracey Jeune who make the programme, and say yes, let's go head and recast.

 

And what do you know, more people are watching What Not To Wear than a year ago, and a million more are watching it than Trinny and Susannah's new show.

 

And that despite a marketing campaign that must have cost an arm and a leg and indeed displayed more arms, legs and practically every other part of the body than I want to see when jumping on the 57 bus.

 

So, as I hope you can tell, I'm a big advocate for linear viewing, for proper programmes, for television in the sense that we understand and have always understood it.

 

Embracing new media, innovating in new media – that's a key focus today. Riding both horses in tandem – that's where the future lies.

 

Just at the moment I think we're all a bit dazzled by technological change. We're like kids on Christmas day, ripping open presents and scarcely pausing before moving on to the next one. It's all pretty exciting.

 

But real television, 30 minute, 60 minute, 90 minute television in all its recognisable genres and forms, with challenging content and full production values, with the best talent and the most varied ideas – that sort of television is not just for Christmas, it's for life.

 

If you're as lucky as I am, to be running the BBC's flagship television channel during this time of enormous upheaval, you're not working in a backwater.

 

Quite the opposite. You're on the frontier. There's much, much more still to explore, and it's a very exciting time to be exploring it.

 

Thank you.



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