Restoring the old magic between Jonathan Ross and the BBC has proved immensely difficult since the scandals that beset the long standing partnership. So difficult, in fact, that the two will soon part ways completely.
Recently, the controversial presenter announced without warning that he would not renegotiate his substantial contract of two weekly television programmes and a weekend radio show after 13 years with the corporation.
For the BBC, the departure of one of its highest paid and most recognisable stars removes a £17 million rod from its back, a symbolic figure that was repeated endlessly in discussions over the organisation’s dealings with ratings-winning stars.
Nevertheless, in his statement, Ross commented that his decision “was not financially motivated. I signed my current contract with the BBC having turned down more lucrative offers from other channels because it was where I wanted to be and – as I have said before – would happily have stayed there for any fee they cared to offer, but there were other considerations.”
To observers, it appears that the 2008 Sachsgate furore, where Ross joined Russell Brand in graphically taunting the actor Andrew Sachs on his answer machine during Brand’s radio show, has had a poisonous effect on the relationship between the presenter and the corporation.
As a TV producer summarised, “Sachsgate was a symptom of the general malaise that was already present. The most stupid thing he did was his remark about being worth 1,000 BBC journalists. He took the money and it was the beginning of a lengthy and slow death in his current BBC career.”
Since the Sachs event, BBC compliance managers have stifled Ross’s ‘mind to mouth’ antics by transferring Ross’s Radio 2 show from a live to a pre-recorded programme and numerous lawyers are on hand to double-check off-the-cuff comments that step over the line on all of his broadcasts.
The observable result is a Friday-night chat show that borders on sycophancy towards celebrity guests and visible censorship of his more vulgar comments – a far cry from the extravagant and outrageous escape it used to be. Ratings evidence, too, shows that audiences are unimpressed by the lacklustre nature of the ‘new and improved’ Ross. However, with the benefit of hindsight, surely the BBC knew that taking Ross on board would mean his programmes would tip close to the edge of broadcasting acceptability?
Ever since his rise from researcher to presenter, Ross’s style has been consistently punctuated by sexual references, expletives and controversial behaviour. His shenanigans provided a convenient focus for the BBC’s enemies, as well as his own. The inflated salary; the rude language; and the lewd interviews provided evidence of BBC profligacy, lack of moral standards and incapacity of regulators. Although the most ardent detractors will doubtless find other sticks with which to beat both parties, the departure of Ross from BBC programmes removes resonant weapons, especially crucial with a general election approaching.
Perhaps Ross will do better once he is out of the publicly funded spotlight for some time. He certainly has enough to busy himself with – his production company, called Hot Sauce, produces acclaimed television shows in the UK. An avid graphic novel enthusiast, Ross has also created his own comic book and is rumoured to be looking to turn the plotline into a feature film. Moreover, while his controversial talent is no longer welcome at the BBC, it is possible that he may express himself freely again on a commercial channel at some point in the future. The offers are doubtless arriving thick and fast.
As for the BBC, this departure meant that the broadcaster lost its second big popular entertainer – after Terry Wogan – in under a month. Whereas replacements for Wogan were lined up well before he left, Ross’s exit leaves three programmes without a presenter and no clear successors have yet materialised.
In 2006, Ross was an “irreplaceable asset”, according to Alan Yentob, the BBC creative director. Just over three years later, after a BBC Trust review of talent salaries, Sachsgate and the introduction of a new Editorial Policy, it appears that Ross is an asset the corporation can now afford to live without.
The deepest problem remaining – what will the BBC now offer in terms of successful, popular chat-show entertainment? One of the strengths of the corporation is its appeal across multiple audiences and demographics; without this, one of the central elements of the BBC’s existence is erased. Although the removal of Ross may have been a desired outcome, with the presenter only surviving until now due to contractual technicalities, the larger-than-life star leaves a gaping hole in the BBC’s entertainment repertoire.
Somehow the BBC needs to draw on its world class production talent, rather than giving millions away to fly-by-night presenters, whilst simultaneously sustaining programmes with broad appeal and rebalancing its moral compass. That would require managers to rely on imagination rather than the draw of big names. In today’s celeb-saturated society, is this possible?