BBC's flight to quality in bid to satisfy Tory critics

Conservatives welcome change of priorities but Labour says Corporation should have more confidence in itself
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The Independent Online

The BBC claimed yesterday that it was embarking on a historic "step change" in its priorities, shifting more money into the production of "quality" programming while cutting the amount spent on the website and closing two digital radio stations, 6 Music and Asian Network.

What had been widely billed by the director-general Mark Thompson as a cost-cutting exercise that would significantly reduce the scale of the BBC's operations – in the face of criticisms about overspending – turned out to be a statement of renewed ambition. The BBC Strategic Review will lead to £600m being "reprioritised" to what the BBC describes as "higher quality content", with particular attention being paid to strengthening BBC2 and improving the standard of daytime television and the output for children. The review pledged that overheads will be cut by £100m a year and that by 2013 the BBC, which receives £3.4bn a year from the licence fee, would be spending 80p out of every £1 on the creation of "content".

Some streamlining will take place on the BBC's popular website, which will be asked to cut its spending by 25 per cent by 2013. "We think this is a moment for focus and rationalisation after a period of very broad growth in web activity across the BBC," said Mr Thompson.

The Strategic Review listed 15 sections of the website that would be shut down, though many of them are already defunct. These include Celebdaq, the BBC's online celebrity stock exchange, which was launched in 2002, which, with its sister site Sportdaq, was actually closed last month. Also being shut down is amiafreak, a cartoon site advising teenagers on "vaginas, periods and willy worries". Other sites to be axed included several already "mothballed", such as theunderdogshow, which was set up to accompany a BBC2 series about celebrities and rescued dogs, and was last updated in 2007.

Mr Thompson promised that every page on the BBC website would carry at least one link to an external site. But the changes outlined in the review are unlikely to appease the BBC's critics in commercial news media who have long argued that the dominance of bbc.co.uk, which has 28 million unique UK-based users every week, inhibits their chances of a viable future.

The BBC announced that the number of distinct sections of bbc.co.uk would be halved by 2012. But the reality is that the website, the only British-owned site in the top 10 most popular destinations for British internet users, will continue to grow. Senior BBC executives are anxious that every single programme ever made by the BBC in its history will have a dedicated webpage. "It's perfectly possible to imagine a world not far away where all the BBC's services are principally distributed over the web," said Mr Thompson. The review said that the BBC intended to "improve the quality" of its local websites, prompting fears from the Newspaper Society that the regional press, which is in dire financial straits, would face unfair competition.

The Conservatives have consistently warned the BBC that it has grown too big and the Shadow Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, indicated yesterday that it needed to act. "I am pleased the BBC is taking a long hard look at exactly what it should be doing, but the truth of the matter is that we need to see actions not words. Will the BBC be less expansionist? Will it think carefully about its impact on the independent sector? Above all, will it spend licence fee payers' money on quality public service content that they want to see? Only real change will address these concerns so I hope that's what we get."

The Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, countered by saying that the BBC should not be intimidated by the Tories. "The BBC is a great British asset and should not approach the future assuming the Conservatives, who are viscerally hostile to the BBC, will win the election. The BBC should have confidence in itself and the enormous support it enjoys from the British people."

When the Strategic Review was ordered by the BBC Trust in July 2009, the corporation and its governing body were under extraordinary attack even for an organisation used to being in the line of fire. Mr Bradshaw, a former BBC journalist, had spoken of "almost a feeling of despair among a lot of highly respected BBC professionals" over the leadership failings of BBC management. The corporation had been forced to suspend bonuses paid to senior executives, who were also criticised for claiming for silver bracelets, champagne and cashmere socks on expenses. "What we needed to embark upon was a more comprehensive examination of the BBC's priorities, purposes and crucially its boundaries," said the Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons yesterday.

The Strategic Review sets out five "editorial priorities" for the BBC; namely to offer the best journalism in the world, deliver programmes which "inspire knowledge, music and culture", ambitious UK-produced drama and comedy, outstanding children's content and coverage of events that "bring communities and the nation together".

Supporters of 6 Music, who are running petitions campaigning for it to be saved, can use the 12-week consultation process to fight for a reprieve. "There's a lot of water under the bridge before we get to that point," Mr Thompson said.

He praised some of 6 Music's "distinctive output" but said it was "expensive" to run given the size of its audience. "6 Music's demographic sits very much across the same demographic targeted by mainstream commercial radio and we are fearful that if we address the value for money issue by building it into a third national popular music radio station the issues of market impact would be great."

Mr Thompson said British Asians would be better served by specialist online content than by Asian Network national radio, which was set up in 2002.

The review also signalled the end of two BBC youth services, BBC Switch and Blast.

The changes

Television

* Increased budget for BBC Two

* Multi-platform youth offering BBC Switch to be closed

* Money spent on imported programmes to be cut by 20 per cent

* Less comedy and entertainment on BBC Four

Radio

* Digital stations 6 Music and Asian Network, recommended for closure. Increasinging the distinctiveness of Radio 2

* Radio 7 to be rebranded as Radio 4 Extra

* More money for BBC local radio specialist shows

Online

* Reduction of spending on bbc.co.uk by 25 per cent by 2013

* Halving the number of sections on the site by 2012

* Underperforming sites such as Celebdaq to be dropped

* More click-throughs to external sites

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