1984 was one of the hardest years in the BBC’s history. A succession of flops on BBC One together with corporate controversies played straight into the hands of ideologically driven critics.
Ratings on BBC One were worryingly low but to be fair the problem might have been better described as a lack of hits rather than a succession of flops.
A balanced public service channel will always take risks – some of these will not succeed – and there were plenty of acclaimed and successful shows that year.
But one programme was both a genuine flop and caused a corporate controversy. The disaster of Sixty Minutes is still astounding to revisit.
On paper, it should have been straightforward. The early evening news and current affairs package had gradually grown in length over the years.
In 1969, the evening news was just 10 minutes long, the regional programmes lasted for 20 minutes and Nationwide appeared three nights a week. By 1983, the package regularly lasted 1 hour 15 minutes.
It was not unusual to see unnecessary repetition on the national news, the regional news and Nationwide.
Sixty Minutes should have simply brought the three elements together into a sharper, slicker package. Yet it failed miserably.
Was it the unpopular signature tune – modified after barely two months? Was it the replacement of popular Nationwide presenters?
Was it about individual decisions? Like cutting the full weather forecast or shortening the length of the news significantly,
Was it about imposing the generic national look on the regional programmes?
It’s hard to say just which of these factors – or others – made the programme such a turkey. The question is why things got to that stage.
Pilots and audience research would usually help prevent fiascos of that magnitude – especially on programmes of corporate significance.
The programme was criticised for triviality – yet Nationwide was looked down upon by some for its lighter items. The news was seen as too short – but that problem could have been spotted a mile off.
Undoubtedly part of the blame lay in the fact that network TV news at Television Centre and current affairs at Lime Grove were rival empires forced to work together.
The other problem with Sixty Minutes was that its predetermined length meant that BBC One’s evening schedule always had to begin at 6.40pm. Nationwide could be something of a buffer.
All too often that 6.40pm slot simply had to be filled by a cartoon until the first substantial programme of the evening got underway. In most ITV regions at the same time, Crossroads was drawing in the viewers who were then staying tuned for the rest of the evening.
The faults – big and small – with Sixty Minutes were so great that there is almost a management text book to be written in how the disaster happened. Nine months later, the inevitable axe fell.
The new Six o’Clock News quickly gathered its deserved reputation – no doubt helped a little by the simple fact that Sue Lawley was once again a welcome teatime visitor in many homes.
Creative risks and changes to established patterns do not always succeed. The disaster of Sixty Minutes was much more serious than the troubles caused by a succession of unfunny comedies. Arguably it even risked greater damage to the BBC’s reputation than the debacle of Eldorado in 1992.
An organisation which prides itself on its news and current affairs output managed to undermine its reputation through a self-inflicted disaster. And in the process, the disaster added to the ratings woes of its flagship channel.
The BBC has faced many self-inflicted fiascos over the years – some are storms in teacups. But this one still reads like an academic exercise in finding out how it was possible to get so many things so badly wrong.
PICTURED: Desmond Wilcox in a pre-launch trail for Sixty Minutes. COPYRIGHT: BBC.