Putting a maverick in charge of BBC1 would be a bit like putting a trick surfer on the bridge of an oil tanker. But in so far as it is possible to be bold, then channel controller Peter Fincham deserves a shout. There were those who doubted he’d be able to switch from running an indie like Talkback Thames to controlling the BBC’s flagship. But now that he has stamped his mark on the channel there’s widespread approval of his work.
Fincham’s success is about much more than just factual and reality programming. But highlights in these genres include quirky hits such as How Do We Solve A Problem Like Maria? and wildlife masterpiece Planet Earth (though it’s worth pointing out that the real genius there lies in the BBC NHU). The transfer of The Apprentice from niche channel BBC2 to mainstream channel BBC1 has also been a revelation.
Not everything has worked out as expected. For example, the £10 million (US$20 million) reality series Castaway was lackluster when it launched on Sunday evenings. Fincham’s bold rescheduling of the series across weekdays has improved ratings, but this show might go down as a misjudgment of the Beeb’s role in the reality market.
Critics are also divided about whether his decision to return iconic current affairs strand ‘Panorama’ to BBC1 primetime represents a return to the high ground or further erosion of editorial standards. Those against complain that the show is chasing ratings by tackling populist subjects – an accusation that has also been made against Fincham’s overall channel strategy. The current rumor doing the rounds in the UK press is that Fincham has said he does not want the channel to be watched by people of his age (e.g. 50).
Another stand-out exec at the BBC right now is director of TV Jana Bennett, who has decided to roll up her sleeves and tackle the issue of cross-platform programming. In 2006, she unveiled plans at MIPCOM to spend ‘tens of millions of pounds’ more on 360-degree projects. Bennett went further than most by suggesting audiences should be given room to experiment with content online. Of course, it’s relatively easy for her to say such things, as her role is to get BBC content out to the widest audience possible to justify the licence fee. Content piracy, however, is not such fun for commercial companies answerable to shareholders.
At the more provocative end of the pubcaster’s output is digital network BBC3. Until his recent return to the C4 mothership, the channel was headed by former E4 chief Julian Bellamy for much of 2006. His replacement is Danny Cohen, another C4 import whose main claim to fame has been the management of Big Brother UK. Clearly, the Beeb sees an injection of C4 DNA as the way to make BBC3 work – which explains a lurch towards shock docs such as the poetically-titled Fuck Off, I’m Fat and Fuck Off, I’m Ginger. It’s too early to know how Cohen will fare, but under Bellamy BBC3 has certainly grown ratings.