Danny Cohen: “The BBC is one of the crown jewels of British public and cultural life”

From Peaky Blinders to EastEnders, home-grown shows can't be beaten by US imports, says the BBC's director of television

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Looking back at the listings in Radio Times from this week 30 years ago, primetime viewing featured Shogun, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney & Lacey and the triumphant return of Dynasty. And that was just on BBC1.

How I loved those larger-than-life old shows. In those days, American programmes regularly made up around 20 per cent of the channel’s peaktime output. In 2015, that figure is zero. There are occasional US films, but no regular US originals in the BBC1 schedule.

I am a huge fan of US television. I watch lots of it and follow the US market very closely. From The Sopranos to Lost, 30 Rock to The Big Bang Theory, the US produces outstanding shows every year. Hollywood has influenced television in every country in the world.

But UK viewers can relish US shows while at the same time cherishing what has made UK television different. Just in the past year or so the BBC has produced world-class shows from Peaky Blinders and Marvellous to Happy Valley and Peter Kay’s Car Share.

We should be as proud of British television and our production model as the US industry rightly is of theirs. The UK public agrees. They love the variety and cultural richness of British-made television. In fact, our research shows that way over twice as many British viewers believe UK drama is superior to US drama, with 57 per cent favouring home-grown programmes compared with 22 per cent who prefer American shows.

The research also shows that the BBC is seen as the best drama producer in the world. This shouldn’t surprise us. We live in the age of globalisation, but also feel strongly the pull of the local and the personal – whether we’re talking about culture, entertainment or news.

Viewing figures support this analysis; a big drama such as Sherlock can have 20 percent of the population tuning in. The BBC’s reach – 97 per cent of the UK population use us every week – is driven by a public hunger for locally produced content and based on the eclectic nature of our programmes – stretching from Wolf Hall to EastEnders, and from wondrous natural history epics to the joy of Strictly.

And we work hard to reflect the whole of Britain, from Last Tango in Halifax to The Javone Prince Show. Viewers recognise this – believing the BBC makes programmes aimed at “people like me” far more than any other broadcaster. 

Our viewers also tell us that they appreciate the range of stories we tell. Long series, short series and high impact single dramas all play a critical role in this. The public doesn’t want everything in box-set form.

I want the BBC to continue to produce high-impact shows that bring the country together and act as a social glue, greasing the wheels of conversation up and down the land. I want a vibrant, competitive British TV sector that showcases British production companies, designers, writers and actors and boosts our economy and standing in the world. More than that, I want British TV that informs, educates and entertains you, the viewer, in a way that’s still world-beating.

It is for all these reasons, and more, that I believe we need a strong BBC that offers a wide range of British-made programmes – dramas, documentaries, news and entertainment. I don’t believe the public want a “market failure” BBC that fills in the gaps by only making the kind of niche television that commercial TV simply won’t make; they want a BBC that can compete with the very best the rest of the world has to offer, driving up standards and delivering for them night after night.

The BBC is one of the crown jewels of British public and cultural life. It unifies the UK, drives the creative industries and provides stimulation, entertainment and companionship for vast numbers every day. In loving what our American counterparts do, we must never lose sight of the proud achievements of British television and its impact on the wider world.

Read more:

David Attenborough’s Life Story Prom: “If ever there was a good reason to keep the BBC alive, this was it”

Why Last Tango in Halifax isn’t just for old people