BBC director talks commissions

Mark Thompson, the BBC's director of Television, held a virtual chat with members of the media yesterday afternoon. A year into his mandate for change, he feels he's made a difference, and wants producers to give the Beeb a try.
May 17, 2001

In response to complaints from the independent production sector that the system had ground to a halt, the BBC has taken steps to try to make the commissioning process as transparent as possible. Last month, it was the launch of a new website resource for producers looking for information ( Yesterday, Mark Thompson, the BBC’s director of television, took the process one step further, hosting an online interview with members of the media. Tackling everything from genres to digital television, Thompson wrapped by saying he felt as though his job was almost done – all he needed now was producers with good ideas. What follows is a partial transcript of that online interview.

Why did the commissioning process change?

Anyone who was involved in the old system will remember there was a lot of criticisms made of it, and there was too much personal taste in decision-making… Although we have ended up with a system that looks more complicated, it makes more sense.

Where do people pitch ideas in the new system?

Because it’s a new system and we want people to understand it, we’ve developed a web page – – so that whatever idea you want to pitch, you’ll be able to find who you need to pitch your idea to. You go to the relevant team and pitch it to them. If you’re part of an internal department, you normally have someone who co-ordinates commissioning, so you should still go to them. We have a small team of people, say 16 or 17, who talk to each other every day, so you shouldn’t think that your idea is going into a box and being sat on for months. The genre commissioners and channel controllers are discussing ideas every day.

Now that the commissioning structure has changed and genre heads are responsible for their own budgets, will the process speed up, or will commissioners still have to consult Jane Root [Controller, BBC2], say, before making decisions?

We’ve also still got channels as well as genres, and the channel controllers have goals too… If a genre commissioner is passionate about an idea and the channel controller isn’t, we may get involved and discuss things. For every one program maker on the old system who used to meet the controller, there were thousands who were frustrated. The old system would have ideas stacking up. There’s a lot of evidence already from the production departments and the Nations that the new system is operating faster than the old one already.

How do programs with interactive or multimedia content get commissioned?

If you think you have a TV idea with a big interactive potential, let us know. We will involve new media if we think the idea is good. We are actively looking for interactive ideas. I think this year is going to be the year that BBC television becomes interactive. We’re launching a Wimbledon interactive site which is great. And a Walking With Beasts interactive experience.

Is the BBC aiming to commission more reality shows like Big Brother?

Of the most talked about programs of the year, some, such as The Weakest Link, have come from us, but some of the big shows like Big Brother and Popstars didn’t. What we don’t want to do is scurry after our competitors. In the middle ’90s with programs like Changing Rooms and Ground Force and many others, the BBC set the pace in factual programs. But there are areas where one or two of our competitors have gone ahead of us.

What do you think the impact of digital TV will be on the BBC over the next few years?

It’s a fact that if you take digital TV over the last year, BBC1 and BBC2 both gained audience in digital homes. I don’t believe that digital television will have much affect. We have a share of about 27% in digital households… we are already a big player in that platform. Most of the people who have digital now are pay-TV audiences. As the whole population converts to digital, people won’t want to pay-to-view stuff so much. I don’t believe there will be an enormous expansion on free-to-air channels. We’re talking about a share transition which takes the BBC from its historic base of 40% to maybe the mid-to-high 30s. We may do worse or better than that, but people shouldn’t think that digital means we are going to vanish. Most popular programs in digital households are the same as the most popular programs on analog.

What do you think will happen to the documentary genre?

Documentary is really important. I think we have wonderful documentaries, [such as] Son Of God in peak time on BBC1, for example. However, it’s true that our needs for documentary are changing. We were using documentary soaps as a sort of plastic padding; although many of the individual programs were brilliant there were too many of them. We need some big, hour-long programs… we’re looking for a different kind of documentary for BBC1. I don’t accept that there isn’t a place for the format on BBC1. We showed a Comic Relief film to see the continuing problems [in underdeveloped areas] and what had been achieved, and we’re playing the program at 9 o’clock, so it’s not that every idea has to be popular. We’re prepared to take a chance with something that is more serious but it has to feel special, there’s not much room for the routine any more.

Is the magazine format of programs dying a death?

I don’t think so. If you look at what Jane Root and colleagues are doing on BBC2 I think you can see some really lively work going on. [But] there’s a danger of us all thinking from the position of a program-maker, if you start by saying ‘what do our audiences want’ and then consider how to package things. I think the multi-item format of every sort has got a future. Look at online. Don’t assume that the answer to the original question is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, what we need to do is look hard at formats.

How are you going to ensure that you get the best ideas, irrespective of whether they come from indies or are generated internally?

We’re trying to run a system that is fair to everyone, gives everyone reasonable safeguards and makes sure everyone has a decent chance to compete. We have the big, English in-house departments, the Nations and so on. The independent sector has a guarantee that 25% of our programs will come from there. The Nations have a minimum guarantee and we’re also going to give Factual and Learning and Drama, Entertainment and Children’s a guarantee. We want to be sure that the ideas we are being offered are the best ideas. We’re not going to get anywhere if we fulfil our quota and the programs are rubbish. Great ideas just cut through the system.

We’re a year into the process of trying to change and I feel to some extent my role is over; everything now depends on the programs. We’re now waiting for the ideas to come in. We need great programs. Don’t forget to go to the website for more information –

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