BBC and Television Genres in Jeopardy

by Jeremy Tunstall (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 400 Pages


This book considers British television from the point of view of executive producers: the people who employ the workforce and are in charge of making all television series. The focus of the book is twenty-one separate genres, at least seven of which are in significant decline – namely current affairs, education, natural history, science, arts, children’s and religion. Some other public service genres – such as documentary, history and travel – are in good health. The most commercially successful genres include formatted factual entertainment series, such as cooking, homes, quiz/game, reality and sport.
The author completed 150 interviews not only with executive producers but with BBC and ITV channel controllers and top genre commissioners. Playing a supporting role are another 200 interviews, which were the basis of the author’s 1993 book, Television Producers. Since 1990, and especially since 2008, British television production has faced financial challenges. Meanwhile, BSkyB, Virgin Media and Channel Five are American controlled, and most of the larger London ‘independent’ production companies are now American or Euro-American owned and operated. Public service broadcasting in general, and BBC television in particular, are threatened with probable further decline. This book offers new insights into the state of British television through the eyes of those working on the inside.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The BBC and Public Service Genres in Jeopardy
  • BBC ‘public service’: Outdated by digital?
  • The BBC and national newspaper hostility
  • BBC: Twenty-one TV genres and twenty TV/radio channels
  • Quality/popular BBC1 and 2 and specialist BBC3 and 4
  • Conflict: BBC chairman versus BBC director general
  • BBC technology and survival strategies
  • Chapter 2: UK Commercial Television Trembles
  • ITV and advertising-funded television leadership
  • Also advertising funded: Four, Five, UKTV
  • BSkyB and Virgin cable: UK subscription, US ownership
  • Hollywood, Silicon Valley and British commercial television
  • How American is British commercial television?
  • Chapter 3: Executive Producers, Independent Production and Celebrity
  • The hierarchy: Producers, channel controllers, commissioners
  • Independent producers: Going corporate and US/European owned
  • Producer power: Defining celebrity
  • Executive producers and genres
  • Chapter 4: Drama and Soap: Most Popular Genres
  • TV drama highs (1970s, 2000s and 2010s) and lows (1985–2000)
  • Drama serials versus quality popular series
  • Drama commissioners
  • Drama exec producers and independent producers
  • Writers, actors, directors
  • Soaps: Truly British, truly popular
  • Classics, Bleak House and costume drama
  • Crime as story engine
  • Television drama dilemmas
  • Chapter 5: BBC News Dominance
  • BBC News versus the competition
  • BBC leads UK press and broadcast news agenda
  • Fast track careers and news bureaucracies
  • News executives in charge and in crisis
  • Political editors: Top agenda setters
  • Financial news
  • London’s four decades as world TV news hub
  • Since 2008: Decline of London as TV news hub
  • Television news: Growth and decline
  • Chapter 6: First Casualty: Current Affairs
  • Big strong stories and small weak current affairs
  • Policy talk and ten minute current affairs
  • Decline from current affairs golden age?
  • Its production system survived but will current affairs?
  • Chapter 7: Traditional Public Service BBC Genres in Decline: Education, Natural History, Science, Arts, Children’s and Religion
  • Education television: Boom and bust
  • Natural history: Genre in decline
  • Science: Another genre in decline
  • Arts on TV: Dilemmas and decline
  • Children’s TV: A story of Hollywood dominance
  • TV religion: From worship to factual fragments
  • Six traditional public genres in decline
  • Chapter 8: Flourishing Public Service Genres: Documentary, History, Travel
  • Observational documentary series: Hospitals, war, prison, school, family
  • Topic docs: America, Royals, Muslims
  • History has a great TV future
  • TV history’s classics and TV future
  • Travel: Documentary and history journey
  • Chapter 9: Comedy, Big Entertainment and Talk
  • From stand-up to sit-down panel comedy
  • Comedians and TV comedy
  • Big entertainment
  • The talk genre
  • Producers, agents, entertainment industry
  • Golden oldies: Everlasting repetition?
  • Chapter 10: Factual Entertainment Formats Prosper: Cooking, Homes, Quiz/Game, Reality
  • Formatted food and chef charisma
  • House and home formats
  • Quiz and game shows
  • Formatted ‘reality’ TV: Big Brother, business, dating
  • Chapter 11: TV Sports: Live, Formatted, Monetised
  • Formatted football and short form sport
  • Long form sport on television
  • Sports stars and managers
  • TV sports producers and talkers
  • UK television and the sports industrial complex
  • Chapter 12: TV Policy in Fragments, Genres in Jeopardy
  • Decisive factors: Prime Minister, press, finance, Hollywood
  • Policy in fragments: Committees, Parliament, departments
  • New channels and technologies: Genre and Hollywood consequences
  • UK cultural policy in fragments
  • UK audio-visual policy: A century of unanticipated outcomes
  • Thatcher’s great satellite policy crash
  • 1980s committees: Amateur, arrogant, ignorant
  • OFCOM: Hesitant regulator
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Index


My thanks to these people who gave me taped face-to-face interviews, in almost all cases at their place of work: Dan Adamson, Pablo Aguirre, Dawn Airey, Kenton Allen, Tess Alps, Geoff Atkinson, David Attenborough, Matt Baker, Glenn Barden, Emily Bell, Roger Bolton, Jeremy Bowen, Kate Bulkley, Ed Braman, Dorothy Byrne, Doug Carnegie, John Clarke, Andrew Cohen, Danny Cohen, Tony Cohen, Charles Constable, Michael Crick, Mark Damazer, Martin Davidson, Jeremy Dear, Conor Dignam, Jonathan Dimbleby, Greg Dyke, Clive Edwards, David Elstein, Ben Fenton, Peter Fincham, Alastair Fothergill, Ben Gale, Mike Gardner, Steven Garrett, Tony Grant, Eleanor Greene, Toby Hartwell, Kate Harwood, Edward Havard, Lorraine Heggessey, Steve Hewlett, Tim Hincks, Alison Hindell, Patricia Hodgson, Susan Hogg, Richard Holloway, Claire Horton, Jay Hunt, Sue Inglish, Faisal Islam, Andrew Jackson, Paul Jackson, Dylan Jane, Clive Jones, Martha Kearney, Richard Klein, Nichola Koratjitis, Jonathan Lewis, David Liddiment, Mark Linsey, Patricia Llewelyn, Kevin Lygo, Laura Mackie, Angus Macqueen, Graham McWilliams, David Mannion, Andrew Marr, Eamonn Matthews, Paul Mitchell, Stephen Mitchell, Patrick Morris, Thomas Morris, Gerry Morrissey, Neil Mortensen, Roger Mosey, Graham Mytton, Bill Neely, Neil Nightingale, Craig Oliver, Peter Pagnamenta, Tony Pastor, Charlie Pattinson, John Perkins, Robert Peston, Jon Ploman, Stephen Price, Keiran Roberts, Nick Robinson, Peter Salmon, Diederick Santer, Samir Shah, John Silver, John Simpson, Jon Snow, Martin Spence, Nigel Stafford-Clark, Ben Stephenson, Kevin Sutcliffe, Ceri Thomas, Deborah Turness, Adrian Van Klaveren, Jeremy Vine, Bella Vuillermoz, David Walker, Sarah Walmsley, Richard Wilson, David Wood, Mark Wood, Michael Wood, Colin Wratten, Steven Wright, John Yorke, Jenny Abramsky.

Thanks also to John Pilger who gave me an e-mail interview. ← vii | viii →

Special thanks to the following people, each of whom gave me two (or more) separate interviews: Tom Bradby, Phil Craig, Gary Gibbon, Daisy Goodwin, Alex Graham, Peter Horrocks, Roly Keating, Stephen Lambert, Anne Lapping, Norma Percy, Phillip Whitehead.

Special thanks also to the following people who gave me a recent interview as well as an interview back in 1989–91: Peter Bazalgette, Jana Bennett, Roger Bolton, Nigel Chapman, Paul Hamann, John Willis, Alan Yentob.

Extra special thanks to Brian Lapping, who spoke into my tape recorder for a total of about fifteen hours.

Many thanks to Rebecca, Helena and Paul for tolerating my television obsession; and to Sylvia for allowing me to do the average Brit’s four hours of TV viewing per day.

Thanks also to Richard Barron, John Cowley and Bruce Hanlin, who laboured through this book in draft and made sage suggestions.

Finally, thanks to Frances Bruce for excellent secretarial and research assistance. ← viii | 1 →


The ‘Death of Television’ has been greatly exaggerated. The average Brit (over the age of two) watches TV for about twenty-six hours per week, or nearly four hours per day. Americans view more. People today also spend huge amounts of time looking at other screens, but this other screen viewing has been added to – not subtracted from – television viewing.

The British television industry’s largely freelance labour market is presided over by a few hundred executive producers, who work either inside an independent production company, or within a broadcaster, such as the BBC, ITV, or Channel Four. These executive producers employ, and then manage, the presenters, writers, directors, comedians, actors, researchers and technical people who make the programming. These executive producers have to get their work financed and accepted by senior channel executives and genre commissioners; most of those senior people are themselves former executive producers.

This book focuses on executive producers and on British television’s twenty-one genres. Not only does British television offer an extremely wide range of genres, but it specialises in many series runs as short as six or eight half hours per year. Although there are also some big, long-running, series, British TV’s output is highly fragmented; which is why it is hard to summarise or comprehend.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, less money has been available for new television productions. Some of the twenty-one genres discussed in this book are not in the best of health. Seven genres have been declining and are now in jeopardy. These declining genres are Education, Natural History, Science, Arts, Children’s, Religion and Current Affairs. These seven are predominantly factual genres, with public service broadcasting traditions. All seven of these declining genres were, in the past, especially strong within the BBC. ← 1 | 2 →

In much better health are another six genres, which are especially strong in commercial television, rather than the BBC. These broadly healthy genres are Soap Drama, Big Entertainment, Talk, Homes/Housing, Quiz/Game and Reality.

A further seven genres are still in goodish health – primarily on the BBC, but also on other channels. If these seven genres decline in the future, then not only will the BBC, but the entire British television enterprise will be in danger. These genres are Drama, News, Documentary, History, Travel, Comedy and Cooking. Especially significant here are Drama and News – British television’s biggest and most prestigious two genres.

The twenty-first genre is Sports, where the BBC’s limited output remains popular. But Sports TV is financially dominated by American-controlled BSkyB, whose main sports competitor is British Telecom.

The biggest change in British television since 1989–90 has, of course, been the increase from four channels to several hundred channels – with the great majority of these numerous small channels being American.

In 1990, when Rupert Murdoch received a nod and a waive from Margaret Thatcher, Britain was still a world television leader. Today many of Britain’s TV and media players are American owned-and-operated from New York and Los Angeles – including BSkyB, Virgin Media, Channel Five, Reuters news agency and most of the larger ‘independent’ TV production companies. Google’s dominance of internet advertising is draining much of the life from both UK newspapers and commercial television. London is no longer a world media and TV hub, but is rapidly becoming a colonial media outpost of the United States.

David Abraham, chief executive of Channel Four, chose a slightly different metaphor when he said:

Our free-to-air channels have become the must-have accessories, the tiny dogs of 2014, amongst US companies eager to stay ahead of each other by internationalising their revenues, priming their distribution pipes and shielding their tax exposure.1 ← 2 | 3 →


  1.  David Abraham, MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, 21 August 2014.


The BBC and Public Service Genres in Jeopardy

In 2012 the British Broadcasting Corporation seemed to have one of its best years since the birth of the BBC ninety years earlier. But in the twelve months from late 2012 to late 2013 the BBC quickly went from triumph to disaster.

The BBC, in 2012, still commanded almost one third of the UK’s TV viewing. BBC Radio had over half of all UK Radio listening. The BBC in 2012 still had about two-fifths of all UK TV viewing and radio listening hours. However, summer 2012 was probably the very last great highpoint in recent BBC history. The BBC’s summer coverage of the London Olympics achieved huge domestic UK audiences. The BBC provided in summer 2012 the main television and radio coverage of the celebrations which marked Elizabeth’s sixty years as Queen.

The BBC’s unprecentedly disastrous 2012–13 year had several overlapping components:

These BBC events generated large quantities of negative coverage across the Press and across TV and Radio (including the BBC’s own news outputs). Less coverage was awarded to some BBC responses. In fact Jimmy Savile’s record of sexual molestation in several hospitals had been even more shocking than his BBC behaviour. Although Newsnight’s initial performance was poor, BBC journalists and BBC News gave massive coverage to the BBC’s multiple disasters. The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative collapse was not its first major computer project disaster; but its DMI failure was less horrible than some other big computer disasters in several UK government departments. The BBC did make several pay-offs of £500,000 or more, but these one-off payments significantly reduced the BBC’s spend on executive salaries. The conflict between the Chairman (Lord Patten) and the recently ex-Director General (Mark Thompson) was nothing new; there had been numerous BBC Chairman v Director General conflicts in the past. When George Entwistle ‘resigned’ as DG he was only the most recent of several BBC Director Generals who left in a hurry.

So what was genuinely unusual about the 2012–13 sequence of triumph and disaster? In 2012 the BBC was experiencing the early impact of a huge 16 per cent real value cut in its revenue. The BBC was bleeding; the BBC’s old rivals in the press, and its new competitors (commercial TV, cable, satellite and online), were alerted. British journalists, as well as politicians, have always been attracted by the smell of blood. ← 4 | 5 →

BBC ‘public service’: Outdated by digital?

Since the ‘Digital Revolution’ of the 1990s, it has increasingly been argued that BBC ‘Public Service’ is outdated and redundant. A key justification for the original monopoly of the BBC (from 1922 as a ‘Company’, and from 1927 as a ‘Corporation’) was the then scarcity of radio frequencies. The sole British radio broadcaster could only have one or two national outputs because the scarce frequency spectrum had to be shared with neighbouring European countries and other services. But the ‘frequency scarcity’ argument – used also in early television – was indeed largely removed by the Digital Revolution, with its multi-channel and multi-platform opportunities.

The BBC grew up under the wing of the British state in general and of the Post Office in particular. For its first sixty years (1922–82) most of the BBC’s Director Generals had served in the military during one of the two world wars. John Reith (the founding BBC DG, 1922–38) was badly wounded in the 1914–18 war. All of the BBC’s DGs during 1952–72 had served as military officers in 1939–45.1

A longish list of its public service goals and stances has posed dilemmas for the BBC in both the distant past and the recent past:

The Licence fee continues to be the BBC’s most vulnerable feature. The Licence fee at about £3 (or 5 US dollars) per household per week is cheap compared with the prices of newspapers, satellite and cable. But the Licence Fee, as a compulsory charge on households is a regressive tax, from which only those over age 75 are exempt. A lowly paid single householder with one TV set pays the same as a large wealthy household with several TV sets. ← 6 | 7 →

Public service broadcasting

Advertisement for new BBC Director General in 2012

The BBC is the world’s leading public service broadcaster. Its mission – to inform, educate and entertain – is unchanging, but the way it fulfils that mission must evolve over time.

Public Service Broadcasting, 1986, according to Michael Tracey:

  • Geographical universality.
  • Catering for all interests and tastes.
  • Catering for minorities.
  • Concern for national identity and community.
  • Detachment from vested interests and government.
  • One broadcasting system directly funded by the corpus of users.
  • Competition in good programming rather than for audience numbers.
  • Guidelines to liberate programme makers and not to restrict them.

Mark Thompson, BBC Director General, 2004–12:

  1. I’ve tried to do four things:
  2. 1.  Focus the BBC on a rather traditional, even classical, view of its mission … The best journalism in the world; outstanding children’s content; outstanding British drama and comedy … Knowledge and culture.
  3. 2.  The BBC … Has to undergo a revolution, thus my total commitment to digital.
  4. 3.  The BBC should be … For the whole of the UK and, in some of what it does, for the whole world.
  5. 4.  To open up the BBC and its privileges and advantages to others. Every week we’ve literally hundreds of partnerships across broadcasting, technology, the arts, sport and other fields.

An Independent Producer:

PSB seems to include cheap quiz shows and ancient crime movies or any other old rubbish the BBC wants to screen. ← 7 | 8 →


VIII, 400
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (February)
Television series Entertainment Producer Interview British television
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 400 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Jeremy Tunstall (Author)

Jeremy Tunstall is the author of numerous books on European, American and British media, including Communications Deregulation, The Media are American, The Media were American and Media Moguls. He is now Emeritus Professor of Sociology at City University, London, where he was instrumental in launching Journalism Studies. He is a founder member of the Euromedia Research Group and has spent academic years at the University of California, San Diego and George Washington University. For his books, he has interviewed senior media people in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, New York, Brussels, India, China, Mexico, Colombia, Algeria and Kenya.


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