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Narrowest niche

Peter Knowles | 15:48 UK time, Tuesday, 8 May 2007

On the face of it, BBC Parliament is the narrowest of niche channels. You’d have to travel down the channel listings as far as Discovery Ironing +1 before you’d find something more niche. What it says in the lid is very much what is inside: Parliament. This means committee hearings and debates from the devolved parliament and assemblies, as well as full coverage of the Westminster chambers. They occupy the bulk of the schedule.

bbcparliamentlogo.jpgBut there is something in the character of these debates and hearings which is the source of an idea we’ve been exploring. We care about authenticity and speech, unmediated. It’s the opposite of soundbite television. There is a lot going on in the political world which is worth hearing in full and a lot of resources to be tapped into – by way of archive and material from other broadcasters – not available anywhere else.

So, over a bank holiday weekend where the weather was less than inspiring, the channel made use of some surprising resources.

frenchdebate203_ap.jpgFrom abroad, we broadcast the whole of the election debate between Sarkozy and Royal (Friday evening with translation – all two hours 40 minutes of it). From the election night itself, the channel took coverage from TF1 and France 2, in French, for those who wanted to experience the event direct and as an alternative to the high-powered special presented by Jon Sopel on BBC News 24, (who, rather conventionally, stuck to broadcasting in English). Earlier in the day, we heard from C-SPAN, with Angela Merkel on the transatlantic partnership.

From the archive, ten years on from New Labour coming to power, BBC Parliament showed in entirety the election night broadcast and this ran all day across the rainy bank holiday Monday. We’ve been told that many participants in the 1997 election stayed glued to their sets, throughout the day. (Next stop in our tour of the election archive:1987, which is showing 5 October).

Drawing on the BBC’s wider resources, the channel showed BBC Scotland’s beautiful film by Ruaridh Nicoll. Patriot Games, examining the history of the Act of Union. And from our own archives, in a new documentary, Robert Orchard told the complex story of Tony Blair’s relationship with Parliament as he prepares to step down.

paisley_203ap.jpgThis morning, that extraordinary opening session of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Back to the Commons, this afternoon, and normal business.

The programming ‘specials’ do, I think, offer something of value and they get the channel noticed in newspaper articles and blogs. In turn, this helps us reach a wider audience for our normal parliamentary schedule. BBC Parliament is the only parliamentary channel, among dozens in the world, to have regular audience ratings (we reach around one million adults, per month) and I think these specials play their part.


  • 1.
  • At 04:56 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Kendrick Curtis wrote:

BBC Parliament is ace. I wish I could get it in Bath, but there's no terrestrial digital signal here :(

  • 2.
  • At 05:53 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • J M Deene wrote:

I love BBC Parliament's non-UK Parliament coverage. Especially C-Span's Washington Journal & BookNotes programme but you don't show these much any more

Also, your 20th December 2006 post about the cameras in Parliament moving about and following the action has vanished? Is this still happening?

  • 3.
  • At 06:18 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Roger Inkpen wrote:

No digital in Bath! Well who'd have thought - still it is somewhere out in the sticks!

I occasionally watch the Parliamentary channel. I think the best bits are the election night specials. But why do we have to wait until October for the next one, when Parliament is in recess for 3 months of the summer?

The debates in the Commons can be rather tedious, but what can be absorbing are the select committees, esp Transport with Gwyneth Dunwoody - what a star!

Oh, but please, why do you show those US talk shows. I'm no anti-yank, but these are the most tedious shows on telly. They are so excruciatingly dull, the presenters seem plain bored with it all.

  • 4.
  • At 06:23 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Daniel wrote:

I love BBC Parliament, especially the election night replays, however I wish you would show more C-SPAN shows and possibly some past US election night coverage?

  • 5.
  • At 07:54 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Ian wrote:

In your blog entry you state that the General Election replays are an opportunity to raise awareness of BBC Parliament.

It's certainly true that those who watch the General Election replays do enjoy it. It is interesting to see how things have, and haven't changed over the years.

However, despite being a shining example of public service television, the General Election replays seem go unnoticed elsewhere on the BBC with barely a mention on any other channels.

I must be weird or maybe I should have been a politician because BBC parliamnet is one of my favourite channels!

BBC Parliament is fantastic, and this kind of programming is evidence of that.

I just wish it was easier to see your schedule - ideally in the newspaper (you can replace the listings for BBC3 perhaps? Most people can remember '3 pints of lager and a packet of crisps' is on at 8.30pm, 9pm, 9.30pm, ad nauseum). I'd have liked to see the French presidential debate, for example, which I didn't know was on.

It is also so valuable to be able to see full debates, the whole of PMQ's rather than just the soundbites on the 'shallow but media-hyped issue of the day', and the select comittees which so seldom get reported at all despite being the forum for some of the most important discussions.

In an ideal world I would like more of this programming to be available 'On Demand' via the BBC website because my viewing time is limited and unpredictable. It doesn't have to be visual - in many ways an MP3 podcast would be much better for me and, I suspect, a majority of the people who are interested in such programming. I shouldn't imagine there are equity issues preventing this? (insert own joke about PMQs here) ;)

I would also enjoy it if you were able to syndicate some programming from C-Span.

BBC Parliament, BBC News Online, PM, Today in Parliament and 6Music are the only parts of the BBC that I use now, and they are easily worth my license fee. Thanks for providing a public service while all about you are obsessed with going head-to-head with what the commercial sector can quite happily provide.


P.S. In light of my last comment: I'm 34, not a retired 'disgruntled' from Surrey lamenting the state of the modern BBC, so don't allow BBC managers to insist that politics has to be reported in the infuriatingly patronising and hyped way it is on other BBC channels in order to attract the under 45's. Rant over. :)

  • 8.
  • At 09:51 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Gary Rodger wrote:

Excellent programming over the weekend. Regarding the 'specials', I have a couple of would be nice to see repeats of Michael Cockerell's politician profiles during recess. Also - and this is a long shot - is there any chance of seeing ITN's election night programmes to compliment the BBC screenings?

  • 9.
  • At 10:19 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • David wrote:

Very interested in BBC Parliament's output, but it needs well-signposted, on and News 24, so that those of us who don't get fascinated by select committees are inclined to tune in. I'd have watched the Royal/Sarkozy debate in English, and I only stumbled on the 1997 coverage at the equivalent of 4am.

  • 10.
  • At 10:39 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • Jack Bynoe wrote:

The 1997 election replay was fascinating. I watched all 14 hours of it. I was too young at the time to really know what was going on, so it was great to be able to see such an important moment again.

Thanks for showing this, and I look forward to the broadcasts in future.


  • 11.
  • At 11:27 PM on 08 May 2007,
  • James wrote:

I have to say I quiet often watch the C-Span Washington Journal on sundays, if only because there is never much else on worth watching at that time of day.

I watched for, er, 12 hours yesterday. (Blogged about it here) - I was too young to appreciate it first time around.

I'd love to see a repeat of 2001, or even any American elections if the BBC covered them at length overnight.

  • 13.
  • At 05:10 AM on 09 May 2007,
  • Hugh McNeill wrote:

BBC Parliament is an excellent channel.
Will you be showing live coverage of the Scottish Parliament if it is in session while Westminster is not?

Hello - a couple of responses to a couple of queries..

J M Deene,

Yes - the new interpretation of the rules apply and it's possible to see reactions in debates. It makes a very big difference to the feel of the event.

Hugh McNeill,

In most cases we are able to do this - and it's been fascinating to see the differences in style between Scotland and Westminster. We'll be showing the Scottish Parliament live on the 30th and 31st of May, when Westminster is in recess.

I see it's already been mentioned, but I would love to have this content available on demand. The Guradian does an excellent podcast of Prime Ministers Questions, but there is a large gap that really needs to be filled in the market. Make it happen!

I watched and even recorded to watch later, quite a bit of Monday's election broadcast. Thank you - I loved it (and I've never watched BBC Parliament before).

  • 17.
  • At 02:46 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Stephen McCullagh wrote:


I stumbled across Election 97 whilst chanel surfing on Monday as was glued. Being 18 in 97, that was the first election I voted on and was able to relive the excitement of the night and laugh at the promises made in some of the interviews (Education, health service? Hmmm). I agree with the other comments though, this should have been flagged up across the BBC output (from the website to Five live). I would love to watch 92 as I was too hung to appreciate it at the time but would hate to miss it by not knowing about it!

  • 18.
  • At 02:51 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • Jonathan Brooks wrote:

Judging from the comments here (and Nick Robinson once told us that only 1 in 10 readers leave comments) there is clearly much appreciation about your specials. I, for one, find the election night programmes, in particular, absolutely fascinating. However, there is a problem about people not knowing when they are on.

Two suggestions: First, could they not be available on DVD. Steve Parks and Josh both propose on demand availability, but this would require massive bandwidth for a whole election night: is there not a cheap niche market for election night programmes? There are hardly massive copyright issues when purchased by only around five people.

Second, and much easier, why not have an email distribution list that people can sign up to and be notified of forthcoming specials; the 5th October is now in my diary, but rather by chance. This is not technically hard, or at the very least, tell Carolyn Quinn so that she can put it into her 'Westminster Hour' weekly email.

The BBC is doing a marvellous service here, but this is futile if it's admittedly small target audience does not know about it.

I, for one, am devastated to have missed the 1997 election programme.

A couple of other things in response to more of your comments...

The Michael Cockerell documentaries will show back-to-back this Saturday 12th from 8pm onwards.

From C-SPAN we'll be showing a day-long documentary about the Capitol, provisionally scheduled at 1030 on Saturday 21st July.
Next year, there's the whole of the Party Conventions to look forward to.

On demand - parts of programmes are already available on demand at We're looking forward to using the iPlayer to offer much more, on a regular basis.

Change the name to BBC Politics and let's help bring politics capture the public's thoughts once more.

I was very interested in the French election, so if there were a dedicated politics channel which not only looked at politics but examined and, most importantly, explained it - that would be wonderful.

It would also allow the BBC to explain the interests of some of the less well-known parties, some of which may have some important points to raise.

More please!


  • 21.
  • At 05:11 PM on 09 May 2007,
  • James2001 wrote:

One thing I think would be good for BBC Parliament to do would be to follow the example of the German NDR channel- they show the "Taggeschau" (the main German news bulletin) from exactly 20 years ago. I'm sure you could find 30 minutes every day in your schedule to show old editions of the 6 or 9 O'clock news bulletins.

I missed the 97 election coverage too and would have watched it if I'd known it was on. How could I have known? A couple of trailers on BBC One would've helped - yes the whole world knows about Holby Blue, instead tell us about something else - and perhaps a story ahead of time on BBC News online.

There's not even a RSS feed for the channel listings.

In fact I think you should run the 97 election coverage again, this time with publicity. You'd likely get a much bigger audience.

  • 24.
  • At 12:08 AM on 17 Oct 2007,
  • Chris Read wrote:

I too love watching the Election night specials and would spend a fair few pennies to get them on a DVD collection! Am a sad geeky type?

I've seen some of them as repeats but not 1997

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