TALK OF THE TRADE : Risky business?

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The Royal Television Society holds regular dinners, usually convivial affairs. But last week's was not. It was used by Robert Philis, the normally avuncular deputy director-general of the BBC, to launch a blistering attack on the The Independent Television Commission for daring to question the BBC's commercial strategy, of which he is architect.

Underlying the tension is the scepticism with which commercial television views the BBC's attempts to convince the world it can separate its expansionary commercial activities (funnelled into Worldwide Television and Worldwide Publishing) from its publicly funded mainstream output.

This is partly because the BBC has never been open about how it set up and funded its satellite TV service, BBC World Service Television. The worry is that licence fee-funded services and assets will in effect subsidise supposedly commercial ventures.

What really grates is that the ITC suggested (in its submission to the Department of National Heritage in response to the BBC White Paper) two public policy options: that licence fee income or income from the sale of surplus BBC assets should not be put at risk in new business ventures, or used as equity (risk) capital, and that, most wounding, commercial exploitation of BBC assets should be carried out by arm's-length franchise holders, rather than the BBC itself.

The implication is that franchisees would do it more efficiently, and cut out the kind of dilemmas about where costs should be allocated.

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