BSkyB plan to buy up BBC's hit shows

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The Independent Online

One of Rupert Murdoch's most senior lieutenants last night called for the BBC to have to sell its most popular shows to its commercial rivals.

Tony Ball, chief executive of BSkyB, also demanded the corporation be banned from buying shows from the US.

In a speech seen as Mr Murdoch's latest attempt to destabilise his major rival, Mr Ball told an Edinburgh International Television Festival audience hit shows such as Holby City, Fame Academy and The Weakest Link should be auctioned to broadcasters like Sky or ITV. "The money raised can then be ploughed back into more public service programming and developing the classic shows of the future," he said.

Under his proposal, the BBC would select six of its best performing programmes for sale each year. Commercial channels would enter an auction to buy the screening rights. Since the shows would still appear on television - albeit interspersed with commercials, or on pay TV - viewers would not lose out, he said. And the BBC would generate income to invest in creating future hits.

But critics say if the BBC lost all of its most popular programmes it would lose the confidence of licence fee payers. Many broadcasting executives at Mr Ball's speechsay the plan is simply to weaken the BBC to Mr Murdoch's commercial benefit, and has been lobbed as a grenade into the upcoming debate about the BBC licence fee renewal in 2006.

There were similar criticisms of Mr Ball's other idea to prevent the BBC bidding for foreign programming - particularly US hits like24 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mr Ball said in 2002 the BBC spent over £100m on such shows, 29 per cent more than five years ago. "Resources should go to commissioning more independently produced UK programming," he said.

A BBC spokesman said: "We are flattered Tony Ball is so preoccupied with the BBC but his comments have to be seen against Rupert Murdoch's long and hostile campaign against the BBC. Thankfully for the British public, Mr Murdoch has not been successful."