John Sergeant's exit another BBC stumble

Ex-correspondent quit 'Strictly Come Dancing' this week

LONDON -- Seems like the BBC just can't help making headlines.

While members of the BBC Trust were holed up in meetings trying to sort out the aftermath of the Russell Brand affair, headlines across the U.K. on Thursday were dominated by a fresh media storm over the departure of former BBC political correspondent John Sergeant from Saturday night primetime show "Strictly Come Dancing."

The BBC received more than 2,000 complaints about the matter, and BBC message boards hummed with commentary over the ousting -- well, right up until they collapsed under the weight of electronic outrage, that is. (Watch a video of Sergeant's farewell below.)

Brits might be headed for the worst recession in 25 years, but the news that the bumbling former BBC and ITV political reporter had quit the show dominated almost all the front pages of newspapers here.

Sergeant, the viewers' favorite by a mile but derided by the show's panel of judges, quit the show Wednesday after admitting that the possibility of actually winning the show (now in its ninth week) was "a joke too far." As audiences voted for Sergeant in droves, overturning the judges' decisions week after week, tempers began to fly.

Slammed as "a pig in Cuban heels" by the show's judges, who also described his dancing as "more ha ha ha than cha cha cha," Sergeant's decision to quit turned into an unexpected headline story.

Clearly still burning from accusations it had failed to act swiftly enough in the Brand affair, BBC bosses handled Sergeant's resignation announcement with the red carpet treatment more usually associated with high-level political events.

A hastily convened press conference at BBC headquarters attracted no fewer than 12 camera crews as well as a host of reporters including senior BBC anchors like Jeremy Paxman, who applied his familiar politician-toasting skills to his former colleague.

"Are you a man or a mouse," Paxman barked in the trademark hectoring style more usually reserved for terrified politicians and captains of industry.

John Humphrys, anchor of the influential Radio 4 "Today" program and another famed political rottweiler, told viewers on Thursday that he had tried to contact Sergeant to urge him to appear on the flagship news show. "He wouldn't return my call."

So has the BBC killed the golden goose by allowing its star attraction to quit? Not necessarily, said former ITV director of television Simon Shaps, who oversaw "X Factor" and "Britain's Got Talent" during his tenure at the commercial broadcaster.

"I think the timing is perfect, for all parties," Shaps said.

"The problem the show was going to have was seeing the same joke, week after week. John has preserved his dignity, the show has preserved its raison d'etre -- finding a celebrity who really can dance," he said. "And the audience has loved the ride."

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