BBC accused of plot to stop rivals showing its classics

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The BBC is being accused by senior industry executives of "discriminatory trading" to prevent its classic television programmes being shown by rival broadcasters.

They claim the BBC blocked attempts to show series such as The Two Ronnies and the ground-breaking documentary The Ascent of Man, to the detriment of the viewing public.

The corporation is accused of refusing to sell its children's programmes to the Nickelodeon channel, in spite of a requirement to maximise profits from sales of archive material. The History Channel says the BBC is to prevent it showing the classic The World At War series, which it has screened since 1995.

The dispute is likely to reach a head this week when industry luminaries including Greg Dyke, BBC director general and Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary, gather in Cambridge for the Royal Television Society's convention, at which a debate entitled The BBC is Out of Control is scheduled.

The BBC justified its actions yesterday, saying it needed to "have distinctive programming".

One of the fiercest critics of the BBC's approach is David Elstein, the chairman of the British Screen Advisory Council, who accused the organisation of "discriminatory trading". Mr Elstein clashed with the corporation after trying to buy rights to Jacob Bronowski's classic documentaryThe Ascent of Man, four years ago when he was chief executive of Channel 5.

He said his attempts to acquire the "best documentary series ever made" were halted by BBC Worldwide, which distributes the corporation's archive, while a separate arrangement was negotiated with UK Horizons, a BBC commercial joint venture channel.

Mr Elstein said: "I wrote to the BBC asking what terms UK Horizons were offering and whether Channel 5 would be allowed to improve on them.

"I also pointed out that a transmission on UK Horizons need not preclude a parallel transmission on Channel 5, where a much larger audience could be expected."

But the Channel 5 deal was blocked. According to Mr Elstein the series was shown "to minuscule audiences on UK Horizons". He wrote to Baroness Young of Old Scone, BBC vice-chairman from 1998-2000, to complain about "a glaring breach of fair trading rules" but got no reply.

Mr Elstein, who is also chairman of the National Film and Television Foundation, said yesterday: "There was absolutely no reason why it should not have been shown on Channel 5. It was a classic example of warehousing and discriminatory trade."

Mr Elstein also said that artists and writers would suffer from the loss of sales of their work. The BBC also blocked an attempt, two years ago, to televise all 12 series of The Two Ronnies, one of Britain's best-loved comedies, on a channel owned by Granada Sky Broadcasting.

Instead it screened two series of the show on UK Gold, another of its commercial joint ventures. Rob Ovens, managing director of Granada Sky Broadcasting, said he was "initially offered" the show but the decision had to be ratified by "the great and the good in the BBC". He said: "It came back that 'No, you can't have it'. We would have taken all 98 episodes but instead it has barely seen the light of day."

Nickelodeon used to screen BBC-produced children's programmes under an agreement that ended with a terse fax in November 2000, before the corporation launched its children's channels, CBBC and CBeebies. The fax read: "BBC policy prevents BBC Worldwide from exploiting BBC children's programming in the UK television market."

The History Channel lostThe World at War, the acclaimed 26-part Thames Television series narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, which it had previously shared with BBC2. The relationship changed after the BBC launched another commercial joint venture, UK History, last year. Geoff Metz-ger, managing director of the History Channel, said his company could not compete. "They have got this big pot of money from the licence fee. It's tough on us."

John Hambly, chief executive of the Arts World channel, said only a "very limited supply" had been made available from the BBC archive.

The former culture secretary Chris Smith said that the BBC should make its archive available on reasonable terms to "whoever wants to bid for it".

The BBC defended its policies and said BBC Worldwide made £123m in 2002-03. "When programmes are licensed, and to whom, varies widely depending on a variety of agreements which Worldwide has with the BBC, independent producers and joint venture partners such as UKTV, another very successful enterprise."


The Ascent of Man

A BBC/Time-Life production in which Dr Jacob Bronowski traced the development of human society through its understanding of science, filmed from 1969 to 1972. Bronowski died shortly after the 13-part series wasaired.

The Two Ronnies

Vintage BBC comedy starring Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker that ran to 12 series over 15 years. First shown in 1971, episodes would begin and end with the newsreader double-act. Attracted audiences of up to 17 million.

The World at War

A Thames Television documentary series on the Second World War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, to which the BBC has acquired the rights. Produced by Jeremy Isaacs, it featured newsreel footage and interviews with survivors.

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