BBC: Birt's Break-up Corporation

Mathew Horsman spells out the director-general's radical programmes only strategy
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The Independent Online
In 10 years, if John Birt gets his way, we will have a BBC shorn of all its production facilities and cut back to a core programming operation.

The BBC director-general's plan is to create, for the next millennium, a "virtual corporation" - a so-called "publisher broadcaster" whose sole purpose is to commission excellent programming.

Virtually every other aspect of the broadcasting business could be farmed out, either to private companies or to "wholly-owned" BBC subsidiaries providing services to the brain trust at the centre.

The model might be Channel 4, which commissions all its programming from outside producers, and yesterday's confirmation from Mr Birt that he is, indeed, considering a separate, commercial status for BBC Resources, the giant facilities arm, is only the latest indication of his radical strategy.

Many within the BBC believe that BBC Production, the newly created programme- making arm, will follow a similar path. The first step would be to rationalise the operation (rumours of as many as 2,000 lost job are rife).

Thereafter, BBC Production might become a commercial subsidiary, free to make programmes not only for the public service broadcaster, but for private companies as well. The step from there to privatisation is not a giant one. But why, Mr Birt's supporters might argue, should the BBC undertake the huge capital investments necessary to keep pace with technological change?

Shouldn't it concentrate on what viewers want to see on their screens, rather than on the studios, editing suites, cameras and all the other infrastructure of broadcasting? Signs that the BBC is already moving in this direction came with news that the information technology functions are likely to be put out to tender, perhaps this autumn, thereby saving the BBC money and removing the internal IT department.

As well, the BBC has already announced it will privatise BBC Transmission, raising as much as pounds 250m and relinquishing the need to finance a hefty bill for the introduction of digital transmissions starting in 1998.

Mr Birt denied yesterday there were plans to privatise BBC Resources. But a host of politicians and trade union officials are not convinced - no surprise, perhaps, given the thrust of the director-general's changes to date.

Why did he separate broadcast from production? Why consider a commercial trading status for BBC Resources? The answer must be to take the BBC closer to his grand vision.

Mr Birt will get support for his vision from Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the Board of Governors. The present Government is also likely to accept much of the argument about the future of the BBC.

The chief problem may be the mounting pressures on the licence fee. If the BBC is stripping down to its essence, and farming out much of its activity to the commercial sector, then should it receive the full fee from viewers? And if it can make commercial revenues on its own, just how long will the licence fee be tenable?

The BBC is seeking the first real increase in the fee since 1985. But the chances of getting more money, even as the restructuring continues, must be rated as reasonably low.

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