On Friday morning, hours after Lesley Douglas’s resignation, the controllers of all the BBC radio and television networks were called together, and asked to look carefully at everything they were broadcasting. “We’re all jumpy. We’ve not been told to change or become more conservative. But we are being encouraged to talk about any shows which seem to be borderline,” said one executive after a meeting with Jana Bennett.
Some fear that this will make the BBC a less attractive place for comedy talent. “My fear is that the BBC will be stuck with a huge compliance procedure, as happened to news after Hutton, which will put people off,” says the publicist Mark Borkowski. But will this deter rising comedy talent from wanting to work with the BBC? Borkowski thinks not – “because it is a fantastic institution”.
There is also the question of cash. Thanks to the advertising slump, as one entertainment expert points out: “everyone else is broke.” Slashed budgets are already affecting established stars: Channel 4 has dispensed with Carol Vorderman, Des O’Connor and Richard and Judy. The BBC is the best-funded of the mainstream free-to-air broadcasters.
There is, of course, the question of what this all means for the talent embroiled in Sachsgate. According to Duncan Gray, former controller of entertainment at ITV, an attempt to poach Jonathan Ross from the BBC is unlikely. ITV already has Al Murray’s chatshow, and has signed up Piers Morgan for another, while Channel 4 is thought to be planning a new talkshow with Chris Moyles. Although ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham, is credited with doing the Ross deal when he was running BBC1, and so might be tempted to woo him, it is thought ITV could not run Ross before 10pm, which means his shows would be unlikely to attract enough advertising to justify his high fees.
And then there’s the issue of the production companies built around stars that are increasingly the norm. It is accepted that performers can go out of fashion quickly, and must try to cash in as much as they can on what may be short-term fame. There is no suggestion the BBC is closing down that option. The instances of headstrong stars at war with commissioners are legendary – but the key lies in compliance, and bolstering the position of broadcasting executives.