Until surprisingly recently, Jeremy Paxman was the only BBC news anchor regularly moonlighting for another department. Last Monday he was part of a BBC2 evening line-up that shows how things have changed: Fiona Bruce at 6.30pm, David Dimbleby at 7pm, Paxman at 8pm, Kirsty Young at 9pm, all in non-news shows.

Between them, this quartet represent most of the plethora of succulent possibilities open to multitasking news presenters, and it's the patrician Question Time host who was the unlikely serial trendsetter. Dimbleby has been regularly ahead of the game in exploiting opportunities away from the news studio: in current affairs series, in entertainment shows (hosting Top of the Form, The Goodies) and latterly as an ebullient pink-shirted tour guide – Seven Ages of Britain follows earlier explorations of art and architecture.

In this role as an amateur enthusiast he's been imitated by Paxman, who has switched from art in The Victorians to history for a forthcoming series on the British empire; and by Andrew Marr, whose degree was in English but who fronted series on biology (Darwin's Dangerous Idea), history (The Making of Modern Britain) in 2009, and geography (Britain from the Air) in 2008.

With the corporation privately sheepish about its lack of female series presenters, Young looks set for similar opportunities as a utility frontwoman; and she and Bruce have adroitly mixed Crimewatch's grimness with lighter fare – Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News for You and Antiques Roadshow. The faces of BBC news now hoover up presenter jobs across the board (see panel) – some in factual series they can plausibly claim to be qualified for, some that involve barging clumsily but spiritedly into experts' territory, and some where there is no discernible link at all between CV and show.

While Bruce's emergence as an antiques connoisseur led to some tut-tutting, it's anchors in "landmark" series who attract most criticism. "I can see the logic - they suggest authority and can write their own scripts," says the Evening Standard's deputy editor, Sarah Sands (whose novel Playing the Game has a newsreader heroine). "The losers are the poor experts who spend a lifetime studying their field and get pushed aside." The New Statesman's TV critic, Rachel Cooke, is less mild: "This newsreader thing is commissioning editors being lazy, and sometimes it's embarrassing too. It made my buttocks clench to see them trying to make out Young is a [historian] David Kynaston figure. I'd rather have David Kynaston."

Less liable to raise hackles as yet is the apparent difficulty of being a BBC quiz compere if you haven't practised by cross-examining politicians, and news types also regularly pop up in celebrity-centred shows – Strictly Come Dancing has managed to include one in almost every series, most recently Christine Bleakley and the 2009 winner, Chris Hollins.

How did we get here? The trend perhaps began in 2003, when Jeremy Vine took over Jimmy Young's Radio 2 show and John Humphrys was picked to resuscitate Mastermind. In the following year Who Do You Think You Are? (with Moira Stuart) and Strictly Come Dancing (with Natasha Kaplinsky) began; and in 2005 Dimbleby first toured Britain in his Land Rover and Dragons' Den debuted with Evan Davis presenting. These were also the years when celebrity culture in its current, overblown form took hold – Heat was enjoying its salad days, Grazia launched – and the attraction of news presenters in documentary series looks to be that they almost uniquely combine credibility and celebrity, at a time when being famous is increasingly de rigueur for those fronting factual programmes.

Another analysis of the trend views the mega-department BBC News as slightly sinisterly setting out to win hearts and minds by making us love its public faces – hence the fanning out into almost every genre. Take the pattern of news types replacing presenters with other backgrounds: Vine for the former crooner Young on Radio 2; Fi Glover for John Peel on Radio 4's Saturday mornings; Paxman and now Marr for Melvyn Bragg on Start the Week; Sue Lawley and now Young for Michael Parkinson on Desert Island Discs; Matt Frei preferred to pundits' essays in replacing Letter from America; Humphrys and Paxman for Magnus Magnusson and Bamber Gascoigne. Examples of the reverse process are hard to find.

However, the broadcaster and writer Mark Lawson believes that as "news is more popular than most other factual genres, news presenters tend to have a reputation for higher ratings – Dimbleby is known to millions, [arts presenter] Andrew Graham-Dixon plays to hundreds of thousands. Whether in practice they draw a higher audience is unclear. With BBC2 and Radio 4, there's a fear of being accused of dumbing down by having quizzes, so on Eggheads, for instance, Dermot Murnaghan is there to bring gravitas. It may also be a factor that [the Radio 4 controller] Mark Damazer came up through news and current affairs – as did [the director general] Mark Thompson – and they're familiar with news presenters' work.

"But I think something else is driving this," Lawson adds, "20 years ago, executives from American networks would tell BBC people they couldn't believe how underused our main news presenters were – that a star like Paxman would only be on a show watched by 800,000. John Birt agreed, and that American model is now generally accepted – we've gone from everything being compartmentalised, with Dimbleby's father, Richard, just doing news, to maximum exposure for known faces."


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp