Monday 19 March 2018

BBC 'at a tipping point' warns boss

Programmes like Poldark, starring Aidan Turner, could get cut if the BBC licence fee was under threat, a leading BBC executive has said (BBC/PA)
Programmes like Poldark, starring Aidan Turner, could get cut if the BBC licence fee was under threat, a leading BBC executive has said (BBC/PA)

The BBC will be forced to shrink its drama output if the licence fee is cut, a corporation executive, who brought the likes of Poldark, Sherlock, Wolf Hall and Call The Midwife to the small-screen, has said.

As the BBC's controller of drama commissioning, Ben Stephenson has been credited with introducing viewers to hit shows like The Missing, Line Of Duty and The Fall.

Speaking before John Whittingdale - who has described the BBC licence fee as "worse than a poll tax" - was appointed Culture Secretary, Stephenson told Radio Times magazine that the broadcaster was at a "tipping point".

"It really can't keep cutting... and the truth is the market isn't going to fill the gap of the BBC," he said.

"There will be less drama and fewer jobs. It doesn't make sense on an economic level. We do need to increase the licence fee....

"There isn't TV in this country, there is the BBC. It wasn't TV that started, it was the BBC. Someone invented the TV but it was the BBC that invented British television. You can't just pull the rug from under that and think that nothing is going to change. And the BBC will be the poorer for it."

He added: "We are funded less than we were in 2000. That's not a moan, it's a fact. So you look at your slate in a different way - it's a reason why you don't have lots of ten or 20-part runs. You make the money go further by having lots of different dramas. But we are at a tipping point."

Stephenson, who is moving to a new job in the US, also dismissed chancellor George Osborne's comments that BBC drama was being left behind in the US dominated box set market and that it should "run with our successes" more by producing longer runs of shows.

Stephenson suggesting that Poldark could run for another five series, covering all 12 of Winston Graham's novels.

But he told the magazine: "The truth is the British system is the British system and the US has the US system.

"Both are brilliant, but financially we are not a country that can make 24-part runs. I believe it would be foolhardy. If you do 24 episodes of one thing you can't do others.

"You wouldn't make Happy Valley and The Missing. The budget of BBC2 drama is under £30 million a year. We could make one 24-part series, and then all the other writers wouldn't be employed.

"If we did 13 episodes of Sherlock a year it would swallow most of our budget and it would be worse at 13 episodes.

"And Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn't do it. We wouldn't do it. It isn't what Britain is. We will do Sherlock as long as the talent want to do it. It's such a compliment that Benedict and Martin Freeman want to do it. They don't need to do it. They love the roles."

He added: "Sometimes there is a view that mainstream is a dirty word and you have to speak down to an audience. But people want stories they can really connect with."

Of viewers' complaints about credits being squeezed out by plugs for other BBC programmes, Stephenson said that he did not have a "particular problem with it" and that the BBC has "other fish to fry," adding: "If we tell people what's on next, more people will watch."

And of viewers who complain that some dramas are too dark, he joked: "We didn't have electricity in the olden days".

He said that he had stopped submitting BBC expenses because he "can't be bothered to be put through all the rigmarole of it," adding: "I was done for... I think I bought a book."

Press Association

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