BBC1 chief set to join exodus over budget cuts

The controller of Britain's most-watched television channel, BBC1, is considering her future after being lined up for one of the biggest jobs in independent broadcasting.

Lorraine Heggessey has been included on a shortlist as the next head of Talkback Thames, one of the UK's largest production companies and the makers of shows such as Pop Idol, The Bill and I'm Alan Partridge.

Ms Heggessey is understood to be interested in taking up the post which will become vacant in June on the retirement of Peter Fincham, the chief executive. Her willingness to consider the role is a sign of growing unease among senior executives at the BBC over impending massive budget cuts at the corporation.

Ms Heggessey, 48, has been controller of BBC1 for nearly five years and has fought hard to protect the channel's diminishing audience in the face of the growth of digital television. Her attempts to maintain ratings have drawn criticisms of "dumbing down" as she has scheduled an extra weekly episode of EastEnders and extended popular dramas such as Holby City and Casualty. But she has had notable successes, including Strictly Come Dancing.

But although she has in the past said that she intends to attempt to become BBC1's longest-serving controller (which would mean staying in post until 2007 to outlast Sir Paul Fox's six-and-a-half year tenure), Ms Heggessey is said to have come to the view that her stay at the corporation's flagship channel has run its course. "She probably thinks she has done enough and is clearly thinking about what is her next job," one source close to Ms Heggessey said yesterday.

Supporters of the feisty controller, who is an award-winning journalist and former Panorama producer who graduated in literature from Durham University and has shown herself adept in dealing with both high-brow and popular television content, think she has been unfairly attacked during what was always going to be a difficult time for BBC1.

Critics claim that she has allowed the channel to lose its identity, and seized on a review of BBC1 ordered by the corporation's governors to "assess whether or not the channel has the best balance of output in peak time".

Rumours that she is set to leave the BBC are rife at Television Centre and Ms Heggessey has not denied them, except to say that her job at BBC1 was "my focus". A BBC spokeswoman yesterday described the talk of Ms Heggessey's impending departure as "speculation". She said: "When there's jobs like [the chief executive position at Talkback Thames] available there is always speculation."

She denied that Ms Heggessey had held meetings to discuss the issue with BBC bosses and said the BBC1 controller was engaged in commissioning programmes for the new season.

Talkback Thames, which is part of the media conglomerate RTL - Europe's largest television and radio company - was formed by the merger in 2003 of two of the biggest names in independent television. Talkback Productions was formed in 1981 by the comedians Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones and became best known for comedies such as Smack The Pony and factual shows including Grand Designs and Jamie's Kitchen. Thames was one of Britain's best-known broadcasters, as the holder of the ITV licence for London between 1968 and 1991, before it was acquired by Pearson and later became part of RTL.

Yesterday a spokeswoman for Talkback Thames said that the appointment of the company's new chief executive was in the hands of Tony Cohen, the chief executive of parent company Fremantle Media. "I think we are getting closer to an announcement but there are several possible people being talked about," she said.

Ms Heggessey might have a rival candidate for the Talkback Thames job in her BBC colleague Peter Salmon, currently head of sport at the corporation, who was touted last year as an outside contender for succeeding Greg Dyke as director general.

ONE YEAR, FOUR BIG-NAME DEPARTURES

JANE ROOT

Famous for "event television" such as Great Britons, Restoration and The Big Read during five years as controller of BBC2. She announced in March last year that she was leaving the corporation to go to America as head of Discovery Networks.

ANDY DUNCAN

The BBC's director of marketing, communications and audiences had barely had the opportunity to welcome Mark Thompson as director general last spring before he left the corporation in July to take Mr Thompson's old job as chief executive of Channel 4.

MAL YOUNG

The BBC head of continuing drama quit last September after seven years, following ongoing problems at the troubled soap EastEnders. He went to join the independent 19TV as head of drama.

CAROLYN FAIRBURN

The director of BBC strategy was highly thought of by the BBC director general Mark Thompson. She quit the corporation after seven years last October to go travelling with her children and husband Peter Chittick, who recently made a small fortune when the Hotel du Vin chain, of which he was a director, was bought by Malmaison.

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