Greg Dyke on broadcasting

The BBC gold rush is on as vultures get ready to swoop
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow is the day the great gold rush was due to begin. Ever since the BBC let it be known it was looking at selling off some of its commercial businesses all sorts of people in the financial world have been waiting for tomorrow, the day the BBC announces what is for sale and what isn't. They could end up being disappointed.

When the BBC's new Director-General Mark Thompson makes his long-awaited speech to the troops about the future direction of the BBC, which commercial businesses are being sold off will not be uppermost in the minds of most of them. They are all much more worried about how many redundancies he plans to make in the organisation.

But outside in the financial community the private equity companies, the people who used to be called venture capitalists until they went up-market and changed their collective name, will be listening to every word from Mark, waiting for him to tell them what's going to be sold and what's not.

The number one target has always been UKTV, the company that owns a range of satellite and cable channels including UK Gold. UKTV is a joint venture company owned 50 per cent by the BBC and 50 per cent by Britain's number two cable company, Telewest. The original joint venture was put together by the BBC and Flextech, but some years back Telewest acquired Flextech.

In recent months all sorts of people, including ITV, Channel 4, Five, Discovery and a range of venture capitalists, have all expressed a public interest in wanting to buy part or all of UKTV.

Unfortunately for the would-be buyers, the shareholders' agreement between the BBC and Telewest makes it very difficult for either side to sell. Both have a "change of control" clause which means that if one side wants to sell, the other has the right to buy them out. In effect this makes any sort of open market sale very difficult even if either of them wanted to sell. After considering its position, the BBC has decided it wants to keep its stake.

This means that the asset that most people want to buy from the BBC isn't likely to be for sale. Nor is everyone's second favourite - the international programme sales business. This was always an unlikely candidate for sale given how important international sales and co-productions are to the corporation.

So what is the BBC likely to sell? It does own a very successful magazine business which publishes Radio Times and a range of other magazines and this could possibly be sold, but only if the offer is big enough to make up for the loss of a very healthy cash flow from the business. The BBC's books, video and education businesses could well go, but if that is all that the BBC ends up selling, the private equity boys are not going to be happy. They will want to know what all the fuss was about. So is there anything else?

After the successful sale of BBC Technology which brought in £150m and reduced the BBC's technology costs by £30m a year, a sale which effectively meant that the BBC's overdraft would be down close to zero by the end of the charter period, the BBC might decide to sell the other parts of the old BBC Ventures Group.

With ITV and Channel 4 looking to outsource their transmission businesses in the future, someone might find BBC Broadcast an attractive buy. And BBC Resources, which owns the studios in London and the BBC's enormous outside broadcast operation, could also be put on the block, if it can find a buyer or a joint venture partner.

Of course, the question that baffles some is why is the BBC selling anything at this particular time. BBC Technology had to be sold to balance the books but if, as a result of this process, the BBC ends up cash rich at the end of the charter period, isn't there a real danger that the Government will just cut the size of the licence post-2007 when the current agreement ends?

'Tis the season to be jolly worried

So why is the BBC planning to make thousands of staff redundant? The rumours suggesting that up to half the staff could be on their way out have done enormous damage to morale. To his credit, Mark Thompson has done his best to play down the rumours while making it clear that there will be cuts, but this has not done a lot to reduce the fears across the BBC. People in parts of the organisation that are least likely to face cuts think they are going to lose their jobs.

I suspect most of the BBC cuts will end up coming in overhead departments like finance and human resources. The truth is that every so often you do have to take an axe to the overhead because there is no steady state - if you are not cutting overhead it is increasing.

Of course what normally happens is that a management proves its worth by hacking back on staff numbers while the number of freelances goes through the roof. The people who are given a redundancy payment often return as a freelance at an even greater cost.

Now it's right that the BBC proves to the Government that it is delivering value for money. But if people are being made redundant only to impress the Government, you have to end up asking what sort of Labour government is impressed when management hacks back on thousands of jobs in the public sector and recruits people to do the same jobs from an outside market where often people don't get decent employment conditions? Was that really what New Labour was all about?