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Books at the BBC

Jonty Claypole

Director, BBC Arts

It was odd to hear Robert Harris criticising the BBC’s books coverage at the Costa Book Awards last night - an event that was being covered live on BBC television after a week in which Costa short-listed authors had been featured on BBC News Channel's 'Meet the Author' strand. And there has been extensive coverage of the Costa Book Awards on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row over the last month too.

Books and authors are at the heart of the BBC's output and we use the full range of our services to take books and authors to the widest possible audience.

Not only do we give extensive media support to major literary prizes and schemes like Man Booker, Samuel Johnson and Costa, we run our own schemes to support authors like the BBC National Short Story Award and The Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s short story writing competition, 500 Words (over 118,000 children applied last year). In fact, later this week we are announcing the judging panel of both the BBC National Short Story Award and the brand new BBC Young Writers' Award with Booktrust - a major commitment to nurturing new talent.

One week in January: A month's worth of book-related programming at the BBC.

Books are also a central part of arts output across BBC television. BBC News Channel has a regular strand in both Razia Iqbal's 'Talking Books' and indeed Nick Higham's 'Meet the Author' which goes out each week. Newsnight extensively covered the Man Booker Prize this year and BBC Four supports the Samuel Johnson Prize.

But, I believe television is at its best with single documentaries and series that take you deeper into a subject. Imagine on BBC One does several book-themed documentaries a year - most recently profiling Colm Toibin and Philip Roth. Other recent highlights include Andrew Marr's 'Great Scotts: The Writers Who Shaped a Nation', Simon Armitage's 'The Great War: An Elegy', War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme (all BBC Two), on BBC Four an Arena film on The New York Review of Books and a six-part series with the Open University called The Secret Life of Books (also on BBC Four), each one presented by a leading author, which is now in pre-production for a second series. The One Show has a regular feature called ‘Britain by the Book’ which brings some of our best loved books to millions of viewers. And for younger viewers, the CBeebies Bedtime Stories are a great way of getting children interested in books at an early age.

Books and authors are also at the heart of many of our best loved Radio strands: Open BookA Good ReadBook ClubBook at BedtimeBook of the Week and The Echo Chamber on BBC Radio 4 are guaranteed to keep you up to date on the best new publications as well as much loved classics. BBC Radio 3 has regular strands with The Verb, Poetry Please and The Book That Changed Me, as well as many book-related single documentaries like Colm Toibin's insightful and moving programme on Thom Gunn earlier this month. Simon Mayo's Radio 2 Book Club has emerged as one of the most significant supporters of the book trade. The reach of the World Service's Book Club is vast. Authors are also at the heart of Start the Week, Saturday Review and Free Thinking.

We're particularly interested in how we achieve impact and win new audiences for books by joining up the BBC's services. Last year, we launched a major partnership with the Hay Festival across BBC Television, Radio and online, including a special live broadcast on the One Show. In the first year, our coverage reached 20 million people in the UK and approx.70 million people globally. No other broadcaster or organisation can, or even tries to, achieve that.

As is often the case, I think what really underpins negative comments about our coverage isn't whether the BBC does enough but that some people just don't know the full breadth of what we do. This is why BBC Arts has launched 'Books at the BBC', a new online service that brings together the best of our books output into one place, as well as digitising gems from the archive and commissioning new work.

Jonty Claypole is Director, BBC Arts


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