The declining fortunes of EastEnders has reopened an old discussion. Should the BBC show soap operas? It’s a discussion which goes to the heart of what the BBC is about.
In general there is the question of whether the BBC exists to provide a full range of programmes or whether it should concentrate on programmes which the market might not provide.
This argument was explored at the time of Charter Renewal in the early 90s.
Under director-general John Birt the view was that the BBC needed to be more distinctive and the corporation pulled back from head on competition with commercial broadcasters.
The most obvious example of this was the repositioning of Radio 1 but BBC One also pulled back from trying to beat ITV at its own game.
However EastEnders was never in any serious doubt. It was a well-produced programme which explored some serious issues in an accessible way.
It was also so popular that nobody would have dared to axe it unless they wanted to turn BBC TV into a niche operation – a British PBS.
While few who care for the BBC would suggest that popular, entertaining programmes are not a vital part of the mix, does the BBC necessarily need to have a major soap opera?
In the 60s, ongoing twice weekly serials such as Compact, United and The Newcomers were a staple of the schedule. But by the early 70s when The Doctors came to an end, homegrown soaps disappeared from the BBC.
Seasonal twice weekly serials such as Angels and Triangle of course continued.
The creation and launch of EastEnders in 1985 was part of a conscious, concerted effort to reconnect with the mass audience.
The quality and popularity of the show soon silenced those who felt it was not the sort of thing the BBC should do.
But would the same arguments apply today?
The BBC’s focus is currently on trying to restore EastEnders‘ fortunes.
But it is currently very much Britain’s “number three soap” in the ratings and it gets far lower ratings than many BBC programmes which are much more distinctive in character – Countryfile, Antiques Roadshow and “quality” drama.
If the efforts to revive the show’s popularity fail and the white flag goes up over Albert Square (and there is no suggestion the BBC wants this to happen) should another soap replace it?
Or is the important thing simply to ensure that BBC TV continues to provide a wide range of programmes which appeal to everyone – including some popular shows and dramas which bring people together?
PICTURED: BBC One programme promotion: EastEnders. COPYRIGHT: BBC.