Symmetry connoisseurs would have found much to enjoy in UK
broadcasting last week. First, Richard Eyre decides to quit ITV for the
quieter pastures of Pearson TV. Then the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher
Bland, announces that the BBC will no longer chase ratings at the
expense of its rival, ITV, but pursue quality instead.
ITV, not to mention its advertisers, must feel Christmas has come
Although you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, it’s impossible
not to wonder if Eyre would have stayed had he known that.
But let’s read between the lines at what Bland, who is nothing if not
subtle, actually said. ’We do not regard holding on to share as the only
or most important measure of success,’ he said - a statement which, on
the face of it, implies a retreat from the ratings war. However, he
preceded this with the comment that ’over the next ten years (BBC1’s
audience share) will be at best stable (at around the 30 per cent mark)
and probably decline’.
To my mind, there’s no ’probably’ about it; BBC1’s share cannot help but
decline. It is a fact of life in the multi-channel environment that
unless the BBC stays in the ratings game and does so aggressively, its
share must, inevitably, decline. So for Bland to imply that BBC1’s share
might not decline is to allude to the possibility that it will continue
to chase ratings. Is he speaking thus with a forked tongue - saying one
thing to convince the chattering classes that he is determined to
preserve and update the BBC’s charter values (not to mention heading off
the advertising on the BBC lobby), while in the same breath conceding
that the corporation will continue to chase ratings, albeit more subtly,
than it has in the past few years?
This is a vital question for advertisers. Whatever ITV thinks, the issue
of advertising on the BBC is merely dormant. Indeed, the ISBA hawks have
an econometric model which, they believe, shows commercial funding of
the BBC would not necessarily cannibalise commercial TV. At the
appropriate moment (ie the next BBC1 ratings ’disaster’) they would be
more than happy to demonstrate it in Whitehall to anybody who would
Take Bland’s words at face value. Would advertisers be better off with a
BBC1 that left the ratings war to commercial TV, in particular ITV?
The answer is yes.
But would it also mean they would give up calls for advertising on the
BBC? I doubt it. In fact what they’d love would be two mass-market
channels that complemented each other. We have not seen the last of this
The usual suspects have been fingered as far as Eyre’s old ITV job is
concerned. But one name has been conspicuous by its absence. The two
qualities said to be necessary for this job are the ability to hold the
ring between warring shareholders and to talk the right language to
My candidate? John Perriss. There’s no question he can do the latter,
and the history of Zenith shows he knows to handle fractious
Plus he’s got a degree in cunning, which is dead handy in a job like