The Controllers Were Well Behaved

The regulators’ conclusions by Ian Tomkinson

First published August 2001

The meeting started at midday with mineral water for all those around the table. Controller of Channel 5 Steve Williams sat at the head and delivered his presentation, fielding questions from the regulators and his contemporaries at the end. As each TV exec laid out their radical plans for the future, they soon moved on to their substance of choice – Coke (that’s cola). So how did they do?

Everyone agreed that all channels were at least as good as they were before. Ian Jones’ Channel 4 was singled out as the line-up with most diversity, innovation and excitement, befitting the station’s remit. Steve’s job at Channel 5 was voted the hardest, as no-one was sure of what C5′s identity actually is (which may explain why his schedule appears the least radical of all). Television fans with a reluctance to change will relish the new look, with a return of the Nine O’clock News, Thursday Top of the Pops and even a retraction of the Monday and Friday EastEnders (although the latter was yet to be launched at the time of this meeting) on BBC1. Campaigners will be buoyed by the quiet axing of Channel 5′s porn.

The public service obligations were well covered, some examples being: Increases in morning schools programming on BBC2 and C4; current affairs getting a regular 9pm slot on ITV (in the form of Sixty Minutes, an idea that was a contender when Tonight with Trevor McDonald got the real-life slot – Barney insisted that “Trev would host it”); main news on both leading channels returning to the traditional slots of 9 and 10pm; strong factual output featuring heavily in Channel 4′s peaktime; religion remaining a bedrock of Sunday morning schedules (with BBC1 promising a whole new strand hosted by Joan Bakewell). The controllers were on the whole well behaved, and the regulators stepped in with specific instructions on very few occasions.

They were:

1) The regulators vetoed Hot Air, the proposed vehicle for micro-celebrity Donna Air, suggested sending the ex-Byker Grove actress into a “particularly violent and contentious national incident”, with the view to her filing a report and even attempting to mediate. The authorities cited taste and decency as a reason for refusing this outright, plus doubts were cast as to whether Air would even consider the role.

2) BBC2 initially proposed just an hour and 45 minutes worth of schools’ programmes on weekday mornings. This caused concern for the regulators (and Channel 4, who had shown a strong commitment to their schools’ strand), and after a schedule revision the slot was increased to three hours and 15 minutes.

3) In the light of ITV’s new football coverage in Autumn 2001, it was felt that ITV’s Saturday afternoon fare ignored the sport. After Barney saw BBC1′s schedules, he quickly promised a full results service. Commitment was also given to highlights from Premiership games played outside Saturday, a feature that will become more prominent in the real ITV. Concern was also expressed with the ITV Sport Late strand running every night, which although a good concept consisted of many repeats. A promise was made to include more first-run sport and a wider variety of action.

As might be expected, some real-life bias crept into the schedules. A high number of TV programmes about TV were noted, in areas like factual and drama. Channel 4 proposed a new comedy-drama set in a “small TV production company”, and BBC2 had Television Stories, a new documentary recounting important moments from the history of TV. At one point both BBC1 and Channel 4 had installed David Aaronovitch as host of one-hour arts review shows, C4′s dealing exclusively with television. This conflict was soon sorted out. “Classic repeats” became a prominent feature in many channels’ schedules, with Channel 4 giving plenty of airtime in the small hours for reruns of “classic and obscure programmes”. This was welcomed by the regulators as a useful employment of the overnight slots. Concern was expressed however over the stripped-and-stranded nature of some of daytime BBC1′s repeats – not giving much choice for the viewer throughout the week.

Of course, one point to remember is that these fantasy schedules represent only a week’s worth of output; many of these points could easily be rectified after series finish their run. In no way could we try to add up totals and see if allotted time compares well with real-life, with only one week of data.

And the whole question of taste, decency and quality cannot be answered here – only the realisation of these ideas would answer that. Some may work, some may not – but that all depends on the execution. Cat Deeley may well bring a new lease of life to Blind Date in its revamped form, stripped five nights a week at 5.30pm, but can the producers keep the show “clean” enough for a fair-sized child audience? The OTT controllers are not even allowed the safety net of a pilot show.

We must not forget that there is a third layer of authority within TV regulation – the invisible but dominant public. In today’s climate shows can get pulled just three or four weeks into their run, if viewers do not take an immediate shine to them. Who’s to say how much different our pretend TV landscape would be after six weeks, following the end of a few series and the removal of the slag?

Soap fans (of which there are many) would also have to deal with some high-profile cancellations – Brookside is gone from Channel 4, and as mentioned the BBC are reversing their thinking on EastEnders by cutting it back to just two episodes a week. Would that meet with the viewer’s approval? Graham’s argument was that the cut would improve the quality of the soap, yet by saying that the BBC would be implying that the show has been at its worst during the last five or so years. And of course in the real world, Brookside would end up on another channel, possibly Channel 5 or even the BBC – making the plan backfire on Channel 4 with the assumed loss of millions of viewers. On the fake Channel 4 it gets no replacement, yet Hollyoaks retains its position in the teatime schedules, sending out a clear signal – “we’re not relying on soap in peaktime”. ITV also wields the axe, this time over Crossroads, but one suspects that few will complain over this. Coronation Street and Emmerdale remain firmly planted in the heart of ITV weeknight programmes – Emmerdale only missing out on Wednesdays due to a football-displaced Corrie.

In Conclusion …

The “fantasy” schedules were subject to as much regulation as is present in the real world.

Each broadcaster in the UK faces two main areas of scrutiny. Issues of taste and decency, the amount of sex, violence and bad language on the BBC are handled by the Broadcasting Standards Commission. The three commercial channels are then subject to a second layer of authority, in the form of the Independent Television Commission. They handle cases of privacy invasion and unfair representation, as well as making sure broadcasters maintain their public service roles (local commitments for Channel 3, the amount of news across all channels). As for the BBC, outside the realms of taste and decency they are answerable to their own Board of Governors, and ultimately to the Government. They need to get Government approval for major changes (such as the proposed BBC3 and 4 currently awaiting the green light). As the BBC is scrutinised so heavily by the commercial sectors of the media, it could be argued that they hold an important role in deciding the direction of the Corporation.

It’s actually quite difficult to find hard figures on what sort of programming our broadcasters should be serving up. There are guidelines, in the form of channel remits or “mission statements” – these serve as very general definitions of what a channel’s purpose is. Outside the realms of production and finance, there are few targets that stations must reach. It seems clear that the regulators are a reactive bunch, prepared to trust the broadcasters in presenting the right material and only taking action if necessary. So, it was with great relief that we discovered everyone had looked carefully at the public service aspect of their schedules, on the whole mirroring the levels of airtime for areas such as religion, news and children’s programming. The occasions when “them upstairs” had to step in were few and far between.

One thing we can do is check broadcasters’ recent form on the subject, and try to draw general conclusions. The BBC’s Annual Report for 2000/01 gives breakdowns on the types of shows aired on BBC1 and 2 over that period. It tells us that news and weather was by far the most prolific type of programme broadcast on BBC1 in that time (over 2,600 hours), more than double the number of hours allotted to factual and learning (which would seem a more likely leader on the channel, given the number of DIY shows and people documentaries). Surprisingly, the old public-service barometers of current affairs, music and arts and religion, often held up as keystones of the public broadcaster, added together could still not beat the number of hours taken up with continuity (that being defined as “all other output that is not programmes”). On BBC2 the output was more balanced, factual and learning, education for children and sport being the main players. Unfortunately the BBC’s figures group many different genres into the “acquired programmes” category, and this makes it a good performer on both channels – in fact taking twice as much time as any other on BBC2. One suspects that a fair proportion of this figure is feature films.

For the commercial stations we head to the ITC website and find performance reviews for all three channels in 2000. It tells us that ITV are mandated by the Broadcasting Act to “provide the following genres: news (national and international), current affairs, religion, children’s and regional programmes”. The non-mandatory fields of drama, entertainment and factual (including current affairs) form the bulk of ITV’s output in 2000, taking around two-thirds of total airtime per week. They’re followed by sport, news and children’s programmes. As with BBC1, religion and the arts drag along the rear with a tiny average of around two hours a week each.

Channel 4 was created as an alternative to other channels, and still holds five points as its central ideals: “have a distinctive character of its own, and cater for interests not served by other channels; provide a diverse service, including news, current affairs, education, religion and multicultural programmes (all of which must be included in peaktime output (6pm – 10.30pm); place educational material, especially, at the heart of the schedule; play a central role in the UK film industry; encourage a large and diverse independent production industry, and production outside London”. There’s also a unique rule for religious programming, where one hour a week must be provided. Drama and entertainment again lead the way, with a quarter of all hours per week, and the traditional minority areas of arts, multicultural and current affairs all took a similar number of hours (around 4 or 5% each). The main task of Channel 4 is to get these programmes shown in the peak period of 6pm – 10.30pm – and the ITC reports that it did this with innovation and diversity in 2000.

Channel 5 has no official remit (discounting the many slogans the channel itself has imposed on us), but like the other commercial channels it faces precise targets concerning programme production. On C5 a majority (i.e. 51% or more) of programmes must be original commissions, and 11 hours of news a week must be provided. ITV and Channel 4 face similar specific goals: ITV must have 65% of their shows classed as “original UK productions”, and Channel 4 need to show no more than 40% worth of repeats (even stricter with 20% in peak) and 60% of programming “specially commissioned for Channel 4″ (again, increased at peak time, to 70%). In addition to these general rules, all UK channels (BBC included) are subject to European legislation. The so-called “Television Without Frontiers Directive” maintains that a majority of all programming must be of EU origin. The Broadcasting Act 1990 also states that 25% of programming on UK channels must be from independent producers.

In 2000, the real-life broadcasters achieved every single one of these targets, sometimes far exceeding them.