Dr Who prescription to bring back family audiences

THE new controller of BBC1 yesterday vowed to uncouple the channel from its historic ratings war with ITV1 as he unveiled an upmarket vision of new drama, comedy and natural history programmes.

Speaking at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Peter Fincham set out his ambition for a popular network that would bring families around the set, through shows such as Doctor Who, despite predictions that the "iPod generation" now only wanted media served on-demand.

The new controller announced a focus on comedy drama and said the network would continue to produce the historic period-piece dramas for which it was well known.

Mr Fincham announced details of a major new natural history programme, called Origin of the Species, which will be broadcast in 2009 on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's book The Origin of Species.

Produced by the BBC's Natural History Unit, Mr Fincham said the series would represent "the breadth of ambition of the best that BBC1 has done".

He also signalled that parts of the BBC1 schedule, to which licence fee payers contribute nearly 1 billion a year, could face radical pruning.

One early target is the BBC's early evening schedule, which the network controller said lacked ambition. Mr Fincham told the Edinburgh audience: "There are too many docu-soaps on BBC1 - well-made programmes, which are often watched by sizeable audiences. But in an increasingly interactive age in which the audience wants to own and influence its programmes to a greater extent than before, the relatively passive experience of watching a docu-soap has lost the impact it once had."

While Mr Fincham refused to identify specific programmes, his remarks appeared to refer to programmes such as A Life of Grime, in which a BBC camera crew trails environmental health officers, and Traffic Cops.

The controller mentioned two BBC2 series he admired - The Apprentice, featuring businessman Alan Sugar, and Coast, a natural history of Britain's coastline, which has proved an unexpected hit at Friday night peak time.

Mr Fincham said: "If the result of much of what I'm saying is that we will take BBC1 further away, over a period of time, from its traditional rival ITV1, then so be it.

"There's nothing in the BBC's charter that says BBC1 is locked in a twin-headed struggle with ITV1, and it undersells itself if it only judges its success in those terms.

"We should keep steadily in our sights that there is more to life than overnight ratings."

Mr Fincham's vision of BBC1 follows the reign of his predecessor, Lorraine Heggessey, who was widely seen as a populist intent on matching ITV1 during her four-year term in the top job.

While BBC1 overtook ITV1 in the ratings battle for the first time under Ms Heggessey, there was criticism inside the corporation that arts and current affairs had suffered as a result.

Mr Fincham pledged that news and current affairs had a "secure" place in the schedule. He cited the example of a recent Panorama special, Undercover Nurse, which attracted an audience of nearly five million. The controller also signalled there could be a new focus on the BBC's regional news programmes, such as Reporting Scotland, that are broadcast between 6:30pm and 7pm.

Mr Fincham said the audience share of up to 30 per cent attracted by regional news had led him to wonder "can we go further? Are we reflecting a hunger in audiences for programmes which celebrate the nations and regions that is greater than we'd even realised?"

The new controller said he would also concentrate on comedy, including comedy drama, in forthcoming schedules.

Mr Fincham is the former chief executive of independent film- maker Talkback Thames, which is responsible for hits such as I'm Alan Partridge, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Da Ali G Show.

He said: "We're planning in 2006 to launch a comedy drama playhouse season where we premiere new shows with major talent. They won't all work, but I'd rather be trying something new than shying away from the challenge."

Mr Fincham highlighted Doctor Who as an example of a programme that drew new, younger audiences into the BBC in a family viewing experience.

He also predicted that in an age of proliferating digital channels, BBC1 would be the trust-brand viewers would keep turning to for major live events. "It is tempting to assume that the shared experience is in terminal decline, but the urge to be part of a bigger audience, and the satisfaction that we derive from it, is a strong one," he said. "In a time-shifted world, live events - Live 8 is a good example - assume a greater importance than ever."

Mr Fincham appeared to play down the warning made in Edinburgh on Friday by Lord Birt, the former BBC director general, that television's greatest challenge was a digital universe in which content would be received on-demand on all sorts of devices, not just TV sets.

"According to some people, the game is almost up for the so-called terrestrial channels, and maybe even for the idea of channels full-stop," said Mr Fincham. "Within a few years we'll access programmes like we access music on the iPod.

"Viewers' relationships with channels are more complex, more durable than that, and as the digital age evolves they will turn out to be more important than ever.

"Channels like BBC1 have history and heritage. They mean something and they're not making any more of them."

• BBC1 was named as best terrestrial channel of the year in a ceremony at the Edinburgh festival on Saturday night

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