Amid the torrent of approval that greeted Michael Grade’s appointment as chairman of the BBC, one of the more sceptical notes was sounded by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).
Giving him what it called a “cautious” welcome, the ad agency body said it applauded the decision to appoint a TV professional capable of rebuilding morale in the corporation. But it also voiced concern that the “populist” approach taken by former director-general Greg Dyke – and approved by Grade’s predecessor Gavyn Davies – should not re-emerge to dominate BBC output.
Jim Marshall, chairman of the IPA’s Media Futures Group, said: “Michael is a consummate professional but, in the past, he has also been a populist as regards programming. After the competitiveness of Greg Dyke, the BBC must return to a stricter and more tightly focused public service remit – it remains to be seen if Michael Grade has the appetite to do this.”
So you can imagine the IPA’s horror at the prospect floated by the Sunday Times of a Dyke comeback. The newspaper said friends were urging the former director-general to ask for his old job back. These friends told the paper a partnership with Grade would be “the return of The Likely Lads”, pointing out that the new chairman had told Channel 4 News he was a “Dykeist” rather than a “Birtist”.
I don’t think the IPA should be too worried. Even an organisation as large as the BBC would find it hard to absorb two such strong characters as Grade and Dyke. But the IPA is right to point out how important the appointment of the director-general will be, for it’s that person, not the chairman, who runs the BBC day-to-day. Indeed, Grade made it clear in his opening news conference that he intended to distance the board of governors from the management, saying the two had become too close.
Last month in this column, I said the dual role of the governors – as the BBC’s champions and its regulators – would be high on the new chairman’s agenda and that Grade had emerged as the “one to beat”. Yet right until the last minute there were doubts that he would get the job. There was a widely held feeling that Downing Street would never approve his appointment because of his longstanding feud with John Birt, the former director-general who now works in Number 10 as an adviser to the Prime Minister.
So will Grade and his director-general maintain Dyke’s populist tendencies? What’s often forgotten is that there is a cycle in television programming, a swinging pendulum, affected as much by outside events as by the straightforward competition between channels. The review of the BBC’s Royal Charter will inevitably focus the corporation’s attention on its public service obligations, just as the process of franchise renewal led ITV to make programmes such as Brideshead Revisited and Jewel in the Crown.
But there is no point in pouring all the best public service programmes into channels that aren’t being watched. Critics are quick to point out how few people tune in to BBC 4, where many public service programmes are to be found. That’s inevitable. In the competitive TV environment, all new digital channels take time to get established (as indeed BBC 2 did), but the big battle-ground remains terrestrial TV. And BBC 1 is crucial to the Beeb’s public service output and, before Dyke arrived, it was languishing for want of money and popular programmes. The channel had to be revived before it could start to win audiences for its public service, award-winning programmes, as it is now doing.
The question is: how populist is Grade? He made his name in entertainment, and was attacked by the Daily Mail as the “pornographer-in-chief” for his tenure at Channel 4, but it is often forgotten that for most of his time there his director of programmes was the impeccably public service John Willis, the pioneer of hard- hitting documentaries. Channel 4 was meant to push the envelope and it did.
At the BBC, Grade was a brave champion of controversial but award-winning dramas such as Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective and Tumbledown, about the Falklands War. And he was a brilliant scheduler, making the most of programmes like the fledgling EastEnders and the veteran Panorama, moving it to a later slot – in the teeth of opposition from the programme team – and doubling its audience.
That won’t be his job as chairman – but his views will set the tone for the BBC over the next four years. He made it clear last week he thought ratings were important, but that BBC programmes should not be derivative of their commercial competitors. “If you achieve very high ratings with Only Fools and Horses, then it’s trebles all round. But if you have a £20m giveaway quiz show, I’m sorry that’s not acceptable. That’s buying ratings.” That should be music to the IPA’s ears.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News