Ratings figures for the end of 2001 show that the British Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship channel BBC1 has moved ahead of chief commercial rival ITV1 for the first time.

Over the whole day, BBC1 averaged 26.8% of the viewing audience, a whisker ahead of ITV1’s 26.7%. Although the commercial station triumphed in the all-important peak period, the gap has closed, rounding off a dismal year for parent network ITV.

The results follow a relentless campaign by BBC director general Greg Dyke to make the publicly funded broadcaster more ratings-driven – a game commercial rivals claim the Beeb has no right to play.

As if to add insult to injury, the ratings figures coincided with the news that BBC2 will fight Channel 4’s early evening teen-oriented programming with a daily dose of all-conquering US animated series The Simpsons – a tactic beloved of digital rival BSkyB.

The BBC, hailing the results, took pains to emphasize its less commercially-oriented offerings such as Walking With Beasts and Blue Planet – what it calls “landmark factual events”. But its quest for ratings leaves it open to accusations of dumbing down by shunting serious programming into unfavourable time slots.

This is a strategy the broadcaster may follow to its cost, following an announcement by culture secretary Tessa Jowell that forthcoming regulator Ofcom may be given the power to fine the BBC for lapses in taste and decency or a “slump in the volume of domestic programmes or a loss of diversity.”

News source: MediaGuardian.co.uk