Mid-80s BBC One: the benefits of one big relaunch over piecemeal changes

18th February 1985 was a red letter day for BBC One. A “new look” to the channel was heavily promoted. Leading the troops into action, Terry Wogan with his new chat show. The following night came the much anticipated launch of EastEnders – the BBC’s first full-blooded soap opera for many years.

In the rearguard, were a number of other changes. The evening schedule would always open at 7pm, the weather forecast was revamped and some other programmes moved to new times. Perhaps most notably Panorama – there was controversy over its move from 8.10pm to 9.25pm but this quickly died down when ratings improved.

And, of course, just before Wogan, the new Computer Originated World (COW) made its debut. New look BBC One, new symbol. However the new symbol had been in development for many months and documentation from the time makes clear that the original deadline for its launch was 1st January 1985.

The January season launch trails run from Christmas onwards featured lines about a “new world of entertainment” along with a globe which looks suspiciously like the COW. So when was the decision taken to delay the new ident’s use?

Well, 1984 was almost an Orwellian year for the BBC. It was under fire from both the government and some critics. A huge row erupted after the scheduling of a bought-in drama – The Thorn Birds – delayed the Nine o’Clock News and Panorama. The ratings were good and the show was a hit but no less a figure than the home secretary was unimpressed.

The enormous flop of Sixty Minutes won the corporation few friends either – simply because viewers didn’t like it. However the alleged trivialisation of the early evening news made this a more delicate matter.

And while there were many fine programmes, there was a sense BBC One was a lacklustre channel which had lost its way. Overall ratings were at the point where alarm bells were going off – not least as the corporation battled for a hefty rise in the licence fee.

Into this perfect storm of political controversy and disappointed viewers, entered Michael Grade. He took up his post as controller of BBC One in September 1984.

By then Sixty Minutes had been dealt with. The Six o’Clock News was established – to general approval – and the regional news moved to 6.30pm. Problem number one had already been sorted.

Michael Grade has always been a great showman. By the time he took the job, EastEnders was well under development and the Wogan show was set to launch – although it was originally envisaged for a late-evening slot.

Grade recognised the momentum a relaunch could bring about. A better-planned, more attractive, well-signposted schedule would bring the viewers back and help all programmes achieve their potential. He knew one big relaunch would attract attention in a way that a whole series of piecemeal changes wouldn’t.

When it became clear that EastEnders would not be ready until February, the launch of Wogan was put back too. This in turn meant other schedule changes were put on ice until the big day.

Meantime Presentation was presumably all ready to go with the new globe – commissioned not to relaunch the channel but just to take advantage of modern technology. Pres had been looking at electronic symbols since the mid-1970s and by 1982 only the globe was being generated from the Noddy machine. BBC Two’s symbol and both channel clocks had already gone electronic.

It would seem reasonable to suppose the weather forecast was due to be relaunched in January too – ahead of much of the bad winter weather when its role was especially important.

At a guess, I’d say the decision to delay the COW was made in late-November or early December as the plans for a relaunch developed. It made sense. The relaunch gave BBC One much needed positive PR – even if Wogan had its critics and EastEnders took months (and a rescheduling) to fulfil its potential.

But the February 1985 relaunch gave a sense that the corporation’s main channel was back in the game and back on the side of viewers. The modern BBC has always had to skate a fine line between competing for viewers and showing that it is different to other broadcasters. But it also knows that ideologically driven attacks always fail when the viewers are on its side.

There were many more rows to come between the BBC and the government, culminating in the sacking of the director-general.

Arguably the pendulum on BBC One swung a little too far towards populism – even if there was no issue with individual programmes. The resourcing of the time left BBC One with too many repeats and imports.

But it isn’t hyperbole to say Michael Grade’s initiative – and the clear sense that he was on the side of the viewers – won the BBC back the people who really matter. The public. An actual relaunch, rather than stealth changes, helped considerably.

35 years later, with the BBC under attack from often ill-informed voices who see bias in every point in a news bulletin which challenges their preconceived notions, might another initiative be a good idea?

Most reasonable people will recognise that the BBC cannot be guilty simultaneously of left and right wing bias. Most reasonable people will recognise that all broadcasters have to operate within tough rules designed to protect the public, and errors of judgement can be honestly made. And the BBC has the humility to enter into sensible discussions over constructive points about individual programmes and apologise should a mistake be made.

Meanwhile millions are enjoying Strictly and Gavin and Stacey and presumably feel their money is being well spent.




Posted by Andrew Nairn

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