Panorama opens door for indie producers

The BBC has revealed that its flagship programme Panorama will be seeking more commissions from the independent sector when it is rescheduled to a prime-time slot next year.

The announcement comes less than a month after the BBC announced that Sandy Smith will take over as the programme's editor in September.

The BBC's head of current affairs, George Entwistle, told Press Gazette: "There'll be more opportunities for indies on Panorama and as soon as Sandy Smith starts in September, they should start to send their ideas to him.

"We've said all along that we are interested in trying a broader range of faces. Because we have more episodes, there will be an opportunity to do that."

The move sees the programme reinstated to the regular 8.30pm Monday slot it held before it was controversially rescheduled to late Sunday evenings in October 2000.

The programme's peak-time output will increase from 15.5 hours to 28 hours.

Four of the shows will be hour-long specials, with the potential to be devoted to in-depth interviews. The remaining 48 programmes will be 30 minutes, rather than the usual 40.

Entwhistle said he was yet to "finally pin down the figures" on the number of programmes to be commissioned from independent producers, but revealed that he expected the indie quota to rise in accordance with the increase in the number of episodes.

He dismissed the suggestion that the truncated 30-minute slots would affect the quality of journalism, saying, "everybody really is convinced that with tight editing and really keeping a clear eye on how you want to tell your story, you can do practically everything we used to do in 40, in 30."

The BBC hopes that rescheduling means the potential audience inheritance from EastEnders should be much larger than what the programme has previously received from the news on a Sunday night.

But Channel 4 head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, has condemned the decision to put the show in direct competition with her channel's current affairs flagship Dispatches as "sad", because it will dilute the audience for both programmes.

One Panorama insider expressed concerns that the increased air time for the programme comes as the BBC television current affairs department is being cut from 12 reporters to nine.

The source said: "It's obvious to anyone who looks at this announcement today that there will be more work, not less, for Panorama. You'd have to be daft not to see that the cutting back of the staff reporters at the moment is just an attempt to cull people — to inject some new blood and bring some new faces onto the programme."

According to the source, BBC bosses want to get rid of people whose "faces don't fit", while having the ability to bring in new members of staff on a more flexible basis.

The source added: "This announcement is a signal that the days of all Panoramas being reporter-led by a small core of Panorama staff is over.

"You can obviously see the merit in having more flexibility, but it shouldn't come at the expense of serious investigative journalism."

Roger Graef, chief executive of Films of Record, an independent production company that has produced a number of films for Panorama, said the announcement was "terrific news" for independent production companies.

However, he admitted that he was "very sorry" about the move to 30 minutes, but could understand the motivations behind the decision.

He said: "World in Action was half an hour in its heyday. Of course we would prefer 40 minutes, most producers would, because you get more nuances into 40 minutes, but if the slot is better then that's the pay-off: you have more viewers, but slightly less time. It forces you to be more direct."

Graef said that for some indies, problems could arise when producing programmes for Panorama if they saw it simply as another job.

He said: "The kind of commitment that you have to make to ensure that your story stands up, and to do all the serious journalism, is against the spirit of the new profit-conscious indies.

"It is not something that people should embark on lightly. If they think that it is a walk in the park, it just is not that. It's the flagship programme of the BBC and it carries that responsibility."

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