EXCLUSIVE: Internal BBC documents have revealed how the British broadcaster conducts repeated research on its biggest stars and scores how well they are performing with audiences.
So-called BBC “talent reports” were released as part of the corporation’s legal battle with presenter Samira Ahmed, who has taken the BBC to an employment tribunal seeking £693,245 ($892,442) in lost earnings as part of an equal pay dispute.
Ahmed said “it just does not seem fair” that she was paid £440 for hosting an episode Newswatch, while at the same time, male presenter Jeremy Vine took home £3,000 for recording an installment of Points of View.
She argued that both shows, which invite viewer feedback on BBC output, involve similar work and provide audiences with a similar service. The BBC disputes this characterization, arguing that Newswatch is a news show on the “relatively niche” BBC News channel, while Points of View is a BBC One brand traditionally hosted by a big-name presenter. Vine succeeded Terry Wogan, an iconic British broadcaster.
A rare window on how the BBC measures its stars
The BBC’s supporting evidence included talent reports on Vine, providing a rare window on how the broadcaster measures its biggest names and tests if they are providing value for money for licence fee payers.
A single-page report, compiled by the BBC’s marketing and audiences team in 2017, showed that Vine was recognized by 79% of roughly 500 people questioned by the corporation. This was above the average recognition score of 55% for all presenters, suggesting the BBC conducts similar research on other stars.
The report then dives into what the group of 397 people who recognized Vine think of the presenter. It is here that the document takes on a Top Trumps feel, with the BBC producing graphs scoring his recognition, motivation to watch, and likeability. The graphs also include demographic breakdowns.
So for example, Vine scored 6.4 out of 10 for likeability, rising to 6.5 among women, but falling to 6.1 among 16-34 year olds. The “all talent” average was 6.3, meaning Vine scored solidly on this particular factor. Audiences did not consider him to be a big draw, however, with only 13% saying they would be motivated to watch a show because he was presenting. This was “notably lower” than the average of 22% across all talent, the BBC report said.
Along the bottom of the page are quotes from four viewers on Vine. “Superb at explaining complex political news. Fun at a quiz and on radio. Engaging,” said a 66-year-old man. A 61-year-old woman was less keen: “Can be very arrogant, very opinionated.”
A second report on Vine from 2014 was also included in the BBC’s evidence in the Ahmed tribunal. His recognition score was lower at 63%, while his likeability was also lower at 6 out of 10. This 2014 report also showed that the BBC does do similar research on its other stars, as it mistakenly featured some data on The One Show presenter Matt Baker — including the fact that he is sometimes confused with former Doctor Who star Matt Smith.
The BBC’s “torturous” negotiations over Vine’s deal
The BBC’s supporting evidence also included a cache of internal emails relating to Vine’s contract renewal in late 2007. Like the talent reports, the emails provide a glimpse into the BBC’s fraught negotiations with agents over exclusivity deals, albeit that the conversations are more than a decade old.
The talks with Vine’s agent Alex Armitage were led by Roger Leatham, who is currently the director of business affairs at BBC Studios. They showed the BBC was under pressure to raise Vine’s salary by 63%, with alleged competing offers of close to £1M from ITV and Sky for the presenter’s services.
The emails show the BBC making a number of offers, encompassing a patchwork of TV and radio work over three years, with direct input from “Mark T,” who is likely to be the then-director general Mark Thompson. All the while, Armitage was playing hardball. After written proposals in November, the agent emailed Leatham on December 4, 2007, complaining that he was unhappy with what was on the table.
“The BBC must now stop bullying this artist and pushing him around on this deal and listen to him… Stop treating him like a chattel and pay him properly in year three and lets have some mutual respect that is not meaningless words not backed up by money,” Armitage wrote. “Stop saying there is no more money as there is money for what ever you want it for, just find it and stop treating jeremy [sic] Vine like a child as he is sick of it now.”
By December 12, a deal was done and Vine was given a job presenting quiz format Eggheads on top of radio and news work. Leatham emailed colleagues saying: “It’s been a long slog but we got there in the end! This is actually a great result for us.” Two years later, the BBC reviewed Vine’s contract, as per a clause in the deal, and Leatham emailed colleagues remarking on what a “torturous” process it had been in 2007.
Vine is no longer exclusive to the BBC, presenting the daily magazine show Jeremy Vine for Viacom’s Channel 5. He remains one of the BBC’s best-paid presenters, however, taking home more than £290,000 for his work on Radio 2.
The Samira Ahmed tribunal continues until Tuesday 5 November.