BBC in on-line talks

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The Independent Online
MATHEW HORSMAN

The BBC is in talks with CompuServe with a view to supplying news and information to customers of the the on-line computer service provider. The corporation is also looking at forging closer ties with British Telecom, with which it is co-sponsoring trials for video-on-demand services.

The CompuServe discussions, which are still at an early stage, are the latest sign of commercialisation at the BBC, and an indication that the public service broadcaster intends to take a larger stake in the emerging, and potentially profitable, multimedia market.

The move is also likely to rekindle the debate about the BBC's charter as a public-service broadcaster. The corporation has stepped up efforts to commercialise some aspects of its business, for example establishing a joint venture with the media and information company Pearson to operate two cable channels, UK Gold and UK Living.

The CompuServe link would give BBC an additional medium through which to sell its range of programming, news and information. The negotiations are being handled by BBC Worldwide, formerly BBC Enterprises, the arm responsible for the corporation's sometimes controversial commercial activities.

Although management at the BBC declined to comment on the terms of the talks, Jeremy Mayhew, the newly-named director of strategy and new media at BBC Worldwide, confirmed that "we are in discussions with a number of on-line service providers, to see which would be best for the BBC".

The BBC already operates its own Internet access service, called the Networking Club, and is expanding its list of educational and information CD-Rom titles.

"We intend to be a key player in the new media field," a BBC spokeswoman said.

Media analysts say the BBC's renowned brand name, and its huge library of material, make it a prime candidate for even greater commercialisation, particularly with the advent of digital TV and the growth of on-line media services. Many of them say it could become a new "national champion" in the multimedia sector, particularly in partnership with BT.

Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, is believed to be among those who support closer ties between a commercialised BBC and BT. An internal memo requesting comments on a possible BBC-BT link was recently sent around the Department of Trade and Industry.

Some Labour MPs, led by Gerald Kaufman, have also suggested BT and the BBC work together to provide news, entertainment and other services, using BT's network. Questioning John Birt, director-general of the BBC, during a Heritage Select Committee meeting on Thursday, Mr Kaufman asked whether the BBC intended to forge closer ties with BT. Mr Birt said he was eager to work together to the degree possible under the BBC's Charter.

Pressures to change the BBC's status have been building in the wake of several high-profile links between "content" providers and carriers - most recently the joint venture agreement reached by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and MCI.

Any plan to provide broadcasting services via BT's network would have to await 2001, when BT will be allowed into the broadcasting market under rules designed to protect the fledgling cable industry. But pressures to bring the date forward have been building, not only in the UK but within the European Union. Some Euro MPs are calling for a "level playing field" for telecoms and cable companies.

With or without BT, the BBC is already extending its commercial reach, and has renewed its efforts to wring extra value out of existing programming assets.

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