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Taking the high road, BBC travels upscale

'Q.I.,' 'Crouches,' 'Read' among new shows touted

LONDON — From Byron to Beethoven, Chaucer to Charles II, serious topics are back in vogue at the British Broadcasting Corp.

BBC1’s flagship drama this fall is a modern reworking of “The Canterbury Tales,” acclaimed by some critics as a tour de force and a welcome alternative to cop shows and medical sagas.

While other U.K. nets continue to ride the reality juggernaut, the web is offering fare that re-examines Blighty’s past, alongside BBC1’s first black sitcom, “The Crouches,” and a high-tech re-creation of ancient Rome in “Colosseum.”

Sister net BBC2, ordered to reduce the number of leisure shows by Beeb chair Gavyn Davies, reports that arts and current-affairs programs are returning to peak timeslots.

One of the channel’s most-talked-about new shows is a quizzer for budding intellectuals, “Q.I.,” hosted by Stephen Fry, the English actor and writer known for having an IQ the size of Texas.

Meanwhile, Steve Coogan, another celebrated British comic talent, will play Samuel Pepys in a monologue based on the diarist’s life and times.

BBC2’s literary theme reaches full expression in “The Big Read,” hyped as a national event, and a sequel to “Great Britons,” which earlier this year had the country divided over whether to back Winston Churchill or John Lennon as the all-time best Brit. “The Big Read” will encourages viewers to vote for their favorite novel from a shortlist of 100. Expect Rowling and Dickens to loom large.

Skeptics suggest the strategy to shift to up-market fare is a blatant (and cynical) attempt to convince the government and opinion formers that the Beeb has not dumbed-down to pursue better ratings.

The BBC maintains that it remains motivated by the desire to provide a distinctive service “of range and quality” offerings to all license fee payers.

Charter renewal

What is undeniable is that the broadcaster faces unprecedented scrutiny in the months ahead, prior to the discussions leading up to the renewal of its royal charter in 2006.

Ofcom, the U.K.’s new communications watchdog, shortly will begin scrutinizing the BBC’s activities as part of a wide-reaching review of all public service broadcasting.

Meanwhile, a committee set up by the opposition Conservative Party, convinced that the Beeb needs reining in, is due to report later this year on how best to fund the pubcaster in the digital age.

“We are bringing a new spirit of invention to current affairs, arts, science and history. It’s got nothing to do with charter renewal,” opines Jane Root, controller of BBC2, whose budget at £410 million ($676 million) represents the second-biggest chunk of license fee payers’ coin after BBC1.

She adds: “I am not interested in increasing audience share at any cost. The really important thing is to get the appropriate audience for the program. We’re competing for people’s hearts and minds, rather than a raw set of figures.”

Not everyone is convinced. Recently Hat Trick, one of the U.K.’s most successful makers of entertainment shows, was furious when BBC1 pulled its new sitcom “Trevor’s World of Sport” from a Friday primetime slot because of poor ratings.

It is unusual for the BBC to reschedule underperforming shows, especially sitcoms, and “Trevor’s World of Sport” had won good notices.

No immediate results

Controllers have traditionally believed that audiences need time to become familiar with new comedies and they should be allowed to build support.

“This is the sort of thing you expect from a commercial channel, but not the BBC,” says someone involved with the program.

But “Trevor’s World of Sport” aside, the public appears to be responding positively to the BBC’s upscale shift.

Episode one of “The Canterbury Tales” was a big draw for the pubcaster, proof that braining-up can be good for ratings, too.

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