The BBC has said it will show more repeats over the summer and output will be “thinner” over the next year after the coronavirus pandemic forced the broadcaster to scrap its filming schedule.
Speaking to ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee hearing today, senior executives said the BBC will be forced to bring back some “old classics” after dramas set to be filmed this summer were cancelled due to the lockdown.
“We are going to have some repeats,” said James Purnell, director of radio and education at the BBC. “The main thing is that it’s very hard to film right now. We have had to cancel quite a significant proportion of the dramas and comedies we were planning to film over the summer.”
Clare Sumner, the BBC’s director of policy, said the broadcaster’s output over the next few months would be a “mixture” of old classic such as Eastenders, and “shows that we can innovate easily in this period”, pointing to the upcoming screen adaptation of Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads monologues.
The broadcaster said it mill air repeats of past Glastonbury and Proms performances to fill TV schedules over the summer. DCMS chair Julian Knight joked that repeats would “obviously not include Fawlty Towers”, after BBC-owned streaming service UKTV temporarily removed an episode of the British classic over perceived cultural insensitivities.
It comes as the BBC attempts to recover more than £125m in losses related to the coronavirus crisis, on top of ongoing savings targets of £190m over the next five years.
“It’s going to be a tough period for the BBC,” Sumner said, adding that the broadcaster’s output “will particularly get thinner next year because of the way production falls”.
She confirmed the BBC’s plans to axe 450 jobs within its news department, but said redundancies had been put on hold during the pandemic. “We are going to continue to have to take some tough decisions because the budget pressure that we’re under now is increasing,” she said.
MPs asked if the BBC planned to delay scrapping free TV licenses for over-75s until October, but Sumner pointed to the fact that it had already cost the company £40m a month to push the decision back from June to August. “We will be announcing our decision in July” she said, adding that the BBC would “give everybody time to transition to our new decision.”
Purnell rubbished claims that BBC Four would be scrapped, but said the channel would mainly show archival content as the broadcaster invests more heavily in luring a younger audience.
DCMS chair Julian Knight grilled BBC executives over impartiality breaches, repeatedly referring to Emily Maitlis’ Newsnight “soliloquy”, in which she told audiences that Dominic Cummings had broken lockdown rules as “fact, rather than opinion”.
Purnell agreed that Maitlis’ introduction was “inappropriate” but said the BBC remained “fully committed to impartiality” and was “absolutely the most trusted news broadcaster.”
He added: “We live in a political world that is much more polarised. It’s a bigger job to judge news impartially. But compared to America, the public debate in the UK is probably better and that is to some extent down to public service broadcasting.”