BBC1 slows search for controller

New topper will have to weather huge cuts

LONDON — Mixed genre TV channels are no longer the force they once were, but in Blighty there remains one channel that uniquely carries public service alongside popularity — the BBC’s flagship web, BBC1.

So why is the pubcaster finding it difficult to get anyone to run BBC1?

Trusted BBC man Roly Keating has stood in as BBC1 controller since Peter Fincham ankled in October. Applications for the gig were due Nov. 1, but it is an open secret that the caliber of candidates was not up to scratch and many top execs, including Keating, have ruled themselves out.

It could be that recent events have turned the dream job into a nightmare.

BBC is still wrestling with audience trust issues after admitting to fraud in some of the phone-in competitions on its shows.

It is also dealing with the aftermath of the controversy over faked footage in a promo for a documentary about the British monarch, Elizabeth II, which cost Fincham his job.

And the new topper will have to weather huge cuts, still to be determined, in BBC1’s annual $2 billion budget, prompted by a lower than expected rise in the license fee that every British home with a TV must pay.

“The job is potentially a poisoned chalice,” says Stephen Garrett, head of Kudos Films and TV, the U.K. shingle that makes “Hustle” and “Spooks,” known as “M-I5” stateside, for BBC1. “Whoever gets the job will have to work against a background of severe and savage financial cuts. With a reduced war chest it will be harder to build on Peter Fincham’s many successes.”

“Doctor Who,” “Life on Mars,” “Strictly Come Dancing,” (the template for “Dancing With the Stars”) “Planet Earth” and the new costume drama “Cranford,” starring Judi Dench, are all BBC1 shows.

Each one represents its genre at the top of its game — be it sci-fi, high concept drama, reality entertainment, blue-chip natural history or costume drama.

“BBC1 is the highest public expression of the BBC there is,” says Steve Hewlett, a former BBC programmer who is one of a long list of senior TV folk who, over the years, have applied to run BBC1 but been rejected. “I don’t think any other broadcaster in the world has a channel like BBC1 because it is where public service and entertainment meet. It is the BBC’s shop window and underpins just about everything else the BBC does.”

Yet, despite that, in the past fortnight many British webheads have very publicly said the job is not for them.

Some of this lack of interest may indicate precisely the opposite, but it is highly unusual to have so many potential BBC1 wannabes saying they don’t want the gig.

“I have categorically not applied to be the controller of BBC1. It is one of the best jobs in the industry but I have accepted a fantastic job at Five,” says the Five web’s program director Jay Hunt, formerly with BBC News.

Others, including BBC4 controller Janice Hadlow, have said they’re not interested in the job, which pays around $500,000 yearly, a good salary in the U.K.

BBC1 is the U.K.’s most popular web. This year the channel’s average audience share is 22%, comfortably ahead of its nearest rival, ITV1, which lags behind at 19.3% despite being a commercial station.

All this should lure execs to the job — yet, what happened to Fincham looms large.

By any criteria Fincham was a successful BBC1 controller. But he left under a cloud after telling media writers at the web’s fall launch that a promo for a documentary on the Queen showed her walking “out in a huff” during a photo shoot, when she hadn’t.

The company that made the doc, RDF Media, had edited the sequence out of chronological order to promote the program.

An independent inquiry cleared Fincham of deliberate intention to mislead, but he was criticized over his handling of the ensuing furor.

“With trust still uppermost in people’s minds running BBC1 will require someone who is a very astute political operator,” says an experienced producer. “No one wants to end up as a sacrificial lamb.”

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