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Speeches

Jana Bennett

Director of Television


Speech given to the Broadcasting Press Guild


Tuesday 6 May 2003
Printable version

Being a good Catholic boy, the bearded Prophet sitting at the head of Channel 4, knows a thing or two about the mysterious ways of Charter Renewal and the wonders it performs.


So when he pronounces that the BBC has a tendency to rediscover old time religion every 10 years or so, it tends to be inscribed on tablets of stone.


And when some newspapers see cynical motives in our move away from traditional leisure programmes on BBC TWO towards more documentaries and a richer programming mix, others nod sagely.


But whatever may or may not have happened in the past, the truth of the present looks very different from where I sit in the broadcasting firmament.


I'm no Doubting Thomas about what BBC Television is, or should be, doing, and that's irrespective of what is happening with the BBC's Charter.


It is almost a year to the day since I rejoined the BBC from my three year sabbatical with TLC, so today I wanted to spend a few minutes looking back to what I said I wanted to do 12 months ago, explaining why I wanted to make those changes, seeing how far we have come on that journey.


Then I want to spend some time casting an eye a bit further forward - and yes, even towards the C-word - to look at the challenges and opportunities that still lie ahead of us.


I suppose that as the daughter of an academic I should be used to end of term reports, and I've just had to do one for Greg, so here's my school report on what I think that BBC Television has achieved in the last year.


The first item on my "to do" list a year ago was to learn to count straight through from ONE to FOUR, i.e. to complete the BBC's family of audience facing channels begun by my predecessors.


When I arrived we had a hole in the portfolio, with permission still outstanding for BBC THREE.


This was crucial for us as we could not leave young adults behind as we moved forward to a digital future - and crucial for the audience.


We believed very strongly then, and do even more now, that there was no alternative for them to find intelligent, quality, original programming designed specially for them at their particular life stages.


We finally got permission last September and launched in February. Next week the channel is 100 days old.


BBC THREE's share of the audience stabilised at an average of 1.8% and 2.5% amongst 25 to 34 year olds.


This is against an average for BBC Choice across 2002 of 1.3% and 1.8% respectively.


3 Non Blondes, recently nominated for an EMMA, has been critically acclaimed for the originality of its comedy and has grown its average audience ten fold since launch night.


And while ratings are not what this channel is all about, the picture is still positive.


The news programmes 60 Seconds has peaked so far at 455,000 viewers, and the science series Body Hits enjoyed audiences which rivalled those of the dramas, with around 216,000 viewers.


But home grown drama has consistently performed well on BBC THREE - Burn It peaked at more than 300,000 and the new Asian drama Grease Monkeys is already performing well with nearly 200,000 viewers.


And, while we are meeting all of the commitments laid down as a prerequisite for launch, the most exciting one that we are meeting week in and week out is that of giving a platform to new and emerging talent.


Each of the programmes I have mentioned has given a new voice the space to grow - and there is nowhere else on multi-channel television doing it.


But it takes time to grow a channel, to establish it in the minds of an audience overwhelmed with choice.


As I said, BBC THREE is only three months old and it needs encouragement and support if it is going to thrive - preferably not public humiliation if occasionally one programme doesn't measure on the BARB Richter scale.


But getting BBC THREE on air was not the only thing that I wanted to do with the portfolio of channels.


I also wanted to get them to work better together to provide a coherent offering to families in digital homes, and to showcase the best of the digital channels in analogue homes.


We are now doing this with early previews of programmes or linked programming (for example Rolf on Art on BBC ONE was followed by a documentary on Toulouse Lautrec on BBC FOUR), with special zones on BBC ONE and BBC TWO and with on air portfolio menus which help viewers to navigate round our services, but hopefully keep them within the family.


The second thing I had on my list was to enrich the mix of programmes on all of our channels.


The strategy that was set out in Banff was too blunt for the age we still live in. He was a man ahead of his time.


It was too simplistic to say that BBC ONE can have drama and entertainment as its focus, BBC TWO factual, BBC THREE young entertainment and BBC FOUR arts and culture.


I believe that all four channels need to have the right mix of light and shade, to keep on pushing at people's boundaries, to take them to new places.


So, working with the immensely talented set of genre commissioners and channel controllers we have, we have layered in a much richer mix across the channels.


BBC FOUR can now afford to have a witty sense of humour, BBC THREE can show politics, BBC ONE shows Leonardo and BBC TWO shows Tipping the Velvet and Cambridge Spies.


So we layered in more types of programmes across all the channels, but there were also specific genres that I wanted us to focus on to bring new energy, new depth and new ambition.


The first of these was arts. We wanted to reinvigorate arts within the BBC.


It had suffered from the lack of a creative head in production for too long, and had been allowed to slip down the list of priorities as the channels focused on getting their foundation stones steady and in the right place.


Now we've got probably the strongest summer of culture I think the BBC has had for years.


On BBC ONE we have Leonardo, we have the first ballet in a decade with The Nutcracker and Alan Yentob's new series called Imagine;


on BBC TWO we have Peter Ackroyd's London, Beethoven's Eroica and Michael Wood on Shakespeare;


on BBC THREE we have a series of short films with new poets called Whine Gums and a series looking at the free art in European cities within reach of a cheap flight;


and on BBC FOUR we have two weeks of the BBC's Proms and Gauguin: The Full Story.


I also wanted to reassert the role of the classic documentary on the BBC, and I thought the recent moving documentary on the Potters Bar rail crash was a superb example of that.


And we're obviously going much further - there is a new strand to arrive on BBC ONE later this year plus more space for them on BBC TWO.


And I wanted us to build on the fantastic strengths we had found under Jane Tranter in drama. Jane, together with the channel controllers, has worked so hard to win the trust of viewers.


We needed to stabilise the schedules with popular drama on BBC ONE for example, and find some returning successes which we could use to launch other series.


As the BAFTAS and the Golden Globes show you, we have enjoyed real drama success recently - now I want us to go still further in taking the viewers to new subjects, and challenge them with thought-provoking content.


We've got a few coming up with Canterbury Tales and Charles II, but there will be more.


Take Pride for example. I can announce today that singer Robbie Williams is going to join Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Sean Bean in the cast as the voices of the characters for this innovative TV film.


Using a real pride of lions, filmed on the plains of Africa, the cast become the characters in a magical and dramatic tale of love and survival in this ambitious new family film, made by the award-winning John Downer - one of the world's most prominent natural history film makers.


Simon Nye, best known for his sharp comedies including Men Behaving Badly, has written the script and the project is a fusion of comedy, drama and natural history.


But one particularly rich area, I believe, is that of factual dramas, like the superb and timely Smallpox 2002, and the forthcoming The Day Britain Stopped, which paints a compelling and chilling picture about what Britain's transport system might be like and what could happen in the event of a seismic catastrophe.


Another new factual film, this time for BBC TWO, is Stephen Hawking.


Written by Cambridge Spies author Peter Moffat, but with Hawking himself acting as consultant on the script development, it tells the early life of the physicist and author, focusing on his breakthrough discovery of the "big bang" and the parallel discovery of two American scientists that proved Hawking's theory correct.


We hope to have a number of other factual dramas to announce in the near future, but they are only a part of the richness that we are adding to the mix.


I can also announce today that Antony Sher and Kristin Scott Thomas will star in two new productions for BBC FOUR.


Sher will star in a new adaptation of JG Ballard's short story The Enormous Space called Home, which will accompany a season of documentaries and little known archive films celebrating Ballard's work.


And, continuing BBC FOUR's commitment to bringing the best of London's theatre to television, we are going to film Christopher Hampton's acclaimed adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters, which stars Kristin Scott Thomas and which is currently enjoying critical and box office success in the West End.


A final new drama announcement for you today again underlines that rich mix - and the BBC's commitment to providing quality output which, at times, challenges and stimulates the audience.


Following the success of Flesh and Blood in last year's What's Your Problem? season on disability on BBC TWO, Jane Root and Jane Tranter have now commissioned Are You Looking At Me?


A co-production between BBC Drama and the DPU, it is a single drama written by Lizzie Mickery (who also wrote Messiah for BBC ONE) and is a love story.


It stars Matt Fraser and Lisa Hammond, both disabled actors, who appeared in the short films which accompanied the What's Your Problem? season last year.


Are You Looking At Me? is an important part of the drama story on BBC Television because it approaches this often difficult subject from the inside out.


This is not an exercise in box ticking.


This is about executives who have a passionate belief in the power of drama to bring a new perspective, working closely with writers who not only have a story to tell but the talent to tell it.


Those few examples of new projects also help to illustrate something else that we have been working on for the past year - raising the level of creativity and ambition in the BBC's schedules.


I think the schedules of today are looking very strong, but this is one where I would judge we are only part of the way along the journey.


I think I'd perhaps award us maybe an eight out of 10 in my school report, because I think we can go much further than we have already.


There are always new heights that we should be aiming to reach.


So in the last 12 months, we've:


- Completed the portfolio


- Launched BBC THREE to some success


- Enriched the programming mix across all of the channels, layering in landmarks in every type of programme


- Reinvigorated the arts and documentaries


- Broadened the mix in drama


- Pushed for greater ambition.


Now, perhaps there are some who would say that all of this is because we are gearing up for Charter Renewal.


That's too cynical an explanation, which also smacks to me of competitive fear.


When we began this journey 12 months ago, Charter Renewal was nothing more than a gleam in a long-sighted eye.


The reason we began all of this, very simply, starts and finishes with the audience.


We want them to enjoy being taken to places they would otherwise never have gone.


Look at Great Britons. How many people would have watched a documentary on Isambard Kingdom Brunel - and then debated his worth to history?


So if that is what we have spent some of the year doing, then what are the challenges that we will be focusing on in the next 12 months?


A lot are the same as last year as I haven't by any means put a tick in the box that we've achieved all we want to in drama, in arts and in documentaries.


I want to see ever more range in our dramas, and I want to see more innovative documentaries on BBC THREE, more peak time documentaries on BBC ONE and on BBC TWO.


I want to see more high impact current affairs in peak on all channels, and Jane and I want to see more international coverage which sets the world in context for the audience on BBC TWO.


Lorraine and I also want us to put yet more energy into finding a new formula for Saturday nights - that holy grail of all broadcasters.


We have made some progress, but those pink and purple sets are still there, and the mix sometimes still feels too samey.


And there are two audiences that we are also going to concentrate on reaching across all of our channels - that is the young and ethnic audiences.


It is too easy to say that BBC THREE is there for the young.


It is, and it is starting to work well, but we mustn't exclude them from our other channels.


They are the audiences of today and tomorrow, and we need to make sure that we are offering them the best in quality, original programming on subjects that matter to them.


The planned new politics show for the under 45s, for example, is just one attempt to engage them in a dialogue about the community around them.


So we want to make sure we are reaching the young with all of our channels, but just to be clear that is not at the expense of the rest of the audience.


We are not going to go hell for leather to find them, and neglect everyone else in the process.


On the contrary, we want to offer something to all of the audience and we have a mandate to be universal in our reach.


But we do want to make more effort to reach the young - not for commercial reasons like other broadcasters, but to provide them with intelligent, quality, home grown output.


And ethnic audiences are another area of focus.


In the last 12 months ethnic viewing to BBC ONE beat ethnic viewing to ITV1 for the first time, particularly among young viewers, and around half of the audience are starting to see that we have got better at representing them.


Even our marketing effort, with the Bollywood ident on BBC ONE and the Babyfather posters, has perhaps helped ethnic audiences to feel that the BBC has something to offer them.


But about a fifth of our ethnic audiences don't think we have got better, so we have a "must try harder" marked in red pen against our efforts in this area.


We've also got that pen out around our programme supply from the independent sector, but we are working on improving our relations and our terms of contract.


So there is still a large chunk of work to do before any of the Television team get the channels to where we all want them to be, and where the audience wants them to be.


Charter Renewal may be just around the corner - and yes, of course we want to prove that we are broadcasting the kind of distinctive programmes that have given the BBC its reputation and set standards for the rest of the industry.


But we also want to deliver those programmes to an audience which is here now, not three years away.


And contrary to the old time religion barb, we discovered some time ago that it can be as popular as any other well made, quality programme when we put programmes like Son of God two years ago, Mary last year and next month St Paul in peak time where the audience could find them.


They are, at one level, great stories, well told and there will always be a place for that at the BBC - irrespective of where we are in the cycle of the Charter.


Notes to Editors


Press release relating to Antony Sher in The Enormous Space and Kristin Scott Thomas in Chekhov's Three Sisters



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