View from City Road: National asset cast as junior partner

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The Independent Online
The BBC has one of the most powerful brand names in the world - streets ahead of rivals in terms of international recognition. Yet in commercial terms it barely benefits from its pre-eminent position.

The dilemma it faces is that there is no easy way for it to exploit the golden egg without the kind of corporate revolution that would finish off the goose.

The licence fee ensures that the BBC does not have to depend for its survival on the exercise and reward of entrepreneurial skills. On the other hand it is competing in a market dominated by aggressive and large players who do. John Birt's endeavours have so far barely scratched the surface when it comes to turning the BBC into a News International or a CNN.

In many ways this is just as well. If the Director-General should succeed in making the BBC's commercial activities a roaring success, the cries of 'foul' from its private sector competitors, deprived of the BBC's privileged position and pounds 1.5bn licence fee, would be deafening.

To the evident relief of competitors there was no sign in yesterday's White Paper of the Government allowing the BBC to take the kind of financial risks necessary to join the media giants of this world. There are constant references to the potentially profitable commercial opportunities on offer in the dawning era of 'multi-media'. And there are nods in the direction of easing some of the more obvious restrictions on its commerical activities.

Technical changes will allow the BBC to set up cable and satellite channels such as the ones envisaged in its link-up with Pearson, the Financial Times's parent group.

But the bottom line is that the BBC will continue to have to piggy-back its commercial plans on the back of private sector players. Its absence of financial clout means it will continue to be condemned to the position of junior and less well-remunerated partner. Businessmen might say that one of our most valuable national assets is being wasted.

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