In the mid-80s the BBC faced two crises.
Politically the corporation was under fire from those who accused it of left wing bias. The government of the day seemed intent on fundamental reform, perhaps scrapping the licence fee or privatisation. At the same time, BBC One was badly underperforming. This sounds familiar.
The past 15 months have, understandably, led to a situation where there are fewer landmark programmes than usual. Programmes of real note like Line of Duty are exceptions. Other popular programmes like Call the Midwife have had their runs reduced.
But perhaps the biggest problem is the “banker” programmes: EastEnders, Holby City and Casualty. Their durations have been cut and EastEnders’ ratings have suffered badly.
In ratings terms it is now very definitely the third soap and the ratings no longer prop up the rest of the schedule. To understand why this is a worry, the strategic importance of EastEnders to BBC One needs to be highlighted.
The big ratings in the 80s boosted the audiences for some other programmes too – even Tomorrow’s World at 8pm on Thursdays. Some of these viewers were those who’d normally prefer ITV and who may have felt they didn’t get value from their TV licence.
It seems hard to see how EastEnders can be restored until production is back to normal post-Covid. Then the episodes can return to a full half hour and they can be scheduled on the half hour again rather than at random times.
But when this happens, surely proper marketing and promotion will be needed? Otherwise the Walford Redevelopment Company could be bulldozing Albert Square one day.
There is no strategic point in a soap on BBC One unless it matches Coronation Street in popularity and brings audiences to more innovative or serious output. Otherwise it ties up resources which could be deployed elsewhere.
And does a world class broadcaster really want to be the home of Britain’s Number 3 Soap indefinitely?
It actually is now just about possible to start to contemplate BBC One without EastEnders and certainly possible to imagine the channel without 4 episodes a week.
There is no suggestion this is on the cards at present – and to stress the discussion here is strategic not creative – but the current ratings mean its long-term future cannot be taken as a given. If this sounds far-fetched, ITV ditched The Bill and Channel 4 dropped Brookside.
Time for marketing teams to prepare a big effort. This will take more than an extended happy hour at the Queen Vic.
The revival of BBC One in the mid-80s – led by EastEnders – helped see off fundamental political threats to the corporation.
And those who’d love to see a downsized corporation devoid of big popular programmes would love nothing more than BBC One without a big soap.
PICTURED: EastEnders opening titles. COPYRIGHT: BBC.