Ex-Worldwide chief has his eye on BBC's assets

But first he's lined up with 'Tractor Tom' to become a Contender in the children's video market
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The Independent Online

After his recent unexpected resignation as chief executive of BBC Worldwide, Rupert Gavin is lining up a possible bid to take over the corporation's studios and costume department.

After his recent unexpected resignation as chief executive of BBC Worldwide, Rupert Gavin is lining up a possible bid to take over the corporation's studios and costume department.

All the signs coming out of the BBC from the current reviews suggest that there is now unlikely to be a widespread sale of Worldwide, the commercial operations of the corporation, but that BBC Resources or BBC Broadcast could be put up for sale or put out to joint venture. A sale could remove thousands from the BBC staff.

Gavin remains convinced that a number of the commercial arm's assets could be offered for sale and that his Kingdom Media company, which has significant financial backing, could also go for both BBC Broadcast (responsible for trails, graphics and interactivity, among other things) and Resources (studios, outside broadcasts, costumes and wigs).

"And we are not just talking about BBC assets," insists Gavin, who is also a director of the Ambassador Theatre Group, one of the world's largest theatre and stage production companies.

In Gavin's latest move to become a significant commercial media player in the UK he has become non-executive chairman of the fast-growing Contender Entertainment Group, which combines producing children's television programmes such as Tractor Tom and Peppa Pig with home entertainment rights for hit series such as Will and Grace.

But Gavin emphasises that despite chairing Contender he still plans to use Kingdom Media to acquire media assets - including any part of the BBC's operations that are spun off or turned into joint ventures with the commercial section.

"Contender does not reflect on my chances to acquire other media assets via Kingdom. It is because I understand that any bid will take some time that it is useful for me to be active in the media market, so I am keeping my hand in and my knowledge entirely up to date," says Gavin.

The deal with Contender includes an amicable "get-out" clause if Gavin manages to buy any BBC assets that would represent a conflict of interest. Meanwhile the former BBC executive is already working on plans to " double and then double again" the size of Contender.

A stock market flotation has not been ruled out although the company is more likely to seek venture capital support for future acquisitions.

The company was founded in 1995 by Richard Bridgwood, a former merchant banker who always wanted to get into the media and who got his experience working for HIT Entertainment, one of the world's largest players in the pre-school character market. He put in £40,000 of his own money and borrowed £100,000 from friends and associates. The private company is due to make £4m profit this year on sales of £20m and Bridgwood has just made the Broadcast Rich List for the first time.

In a fast-moving industry Bridgwood wanted a non-executive with a contacts book that was completely up to date. "Rupert was absolutely fresh off the boat and I immediately thought he was right for us. He is bringing a wealth of experience that we can tap into," says Contender's managing director. The company's breakthrough came when it turned the Art Attack programme from an educational into a mass-market video.

Then Contender started looking for a new children's character to develop. Thomas the Tank Engine, Postman Pat and Bob the Builder ruled out trains, the post office and construction but no one had really done agriculture. Tractor Tom fitted neatly into "the natural play space with farm play that most children go through". The series was produced in house at a cost of £1.5m with the UK broadcast rights going to ITV. Contender can now exploit all the other rights to the character everywhere else. A second series has been commissioned and Tractor Tom is starting to make his way around the world. The broadcast rights to a second pre-school character have also just been sold to the Cartoon Network in the US.

The plan is to use the cash flow from Contender's DVD distribution business to help to fund the development of more children's characters and a move into mainstream independent television production.

"We look at some of our listed competitors and they have asset values of £50m, and they are generating infinitely less return than we are having spent £30m or £40m of float money," says Richard Bridgwood.

It is a balance that the appointment of the high-profile Rupert Gavin as chairman should help to redress.

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