Birt, John

Birt, John
▪ 1994

      In January 1993 the British Broadcasting Corporation acquired a controversial new director general whose task was to secure the BBC's future at a time of rapid technical, cultural, and economic changes in world broadcasting. John Birt had spent most of his career in independent television, trying to wrest viewers from the BBC. Soon after arriving at his new home, he became convinced of the need to discard some of the BBC's enduring habits—something that did not endear him to every member of his new empire.

      Birt was born in Liverpool on Dec. 10, 1944. He joined independent television in 1968, after graduating from the University of Oxford, and became an accomplished producer of current affairs programs. Among his achievements were a series of interviews that journalist David Frost conducted with former U.S. president Richard Nixon in 1977. During the 1970s, Birt developed a rigorous, analytic approach to television journalism that demanded—and rewarded—concentration from audiences. This style became known as "Birtism," sometimes in praise but more often in criticism.

      In 1982 Birt was appointed director of programs of London Weekend Television (LWT), one of the most profitable companies in British independent television, not least because of its knack of producing light entertainment programs with mass appeal. Despite being more familiar with the more austere end of television output, Birt found little difficulty in developing this side of LWT. His mixture of experiences appealed to the governors of the BBC when they needed to appoint a new deputy director general in 1987.

      Birt's arrival in 1987 provoked controversies that never died away. He argued that despite the BBC's formidable international reputation for fine programs, it was overstaffed and badly managed. Between 1987 and 1993 he oversaw a contraction in BBC staff numbers from 28,000 to 20,000 as a result of cost-saving measures and a series of decisions to buy services and some programs from outside companies. Birt's strategy of reform was, however, sidetracked for a while in February 1993 when he admitted that during his period as deputy director general he had not, in fact, been a member of the BBC staff. Rather, he had been working as a self-employed contractor, which provided some tax advantages. Despite much public criticism, Birt received support from the BBC's governors, who rejected calls for his dismissal. He embarked on the task of negotiating with the British government a new charter for the corporation to succeed the current one, which was due to expire in 1996. (PETER KELLNER)

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Universalium. 2010.

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