The Big Question: Why is there such concern over the BBC's commercial activities?

Why are we asking this now?

Because the the sight of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May – the presenters of Top Gear – storming across Tower Bridge in an armoured personnel carrier to promote the fact that they are taking the programme's live show on a £20m world tour has reduced to a state of apoplexy those who believe the BBC has become obsessed with global domination to the detriment of the licence fee payer. The tour will visit cities such as Johannesburg, Sydney, Auckland and Hong Kong, with Top Gear fans paying up to £105 for a ticket and the chance to take part in Clarkson's famous lap challenge.

What's the BBC doing moving into live entertainment?

Top Gear has been identified by the BBC as one of 20 "superbrands" that can be exploited overseas to generate profits for the corporation at home. It is already considered the greatest motoring media brand in the world and the show has been sold to 100 countries, including India where the car market is growing exponentially and Top Gear magazine has become one of that country's most successful titles. Top Gear is one of BBC Worldwide's five highest grossing programme titles (the other four are Doctor Who, Planet Earth, Spooks and Robin Hood).

What other global activities are the BBC involved in?

BBC Worldwide Ltd, the commercial arm of the BBC and a wholly-owned subsidiary, is developing the corporation's global website, bbc.com, which unlike the bbc.co.uk site for British-based web-users is advertiser funded. The company is opening up production offices all around the world, including in New York, Mumbai, Toronto and Sydney, in order to capitalise on the popularity of BBC programme formats.

The Los Angeles office makes Dancing with the Stars, the international name for Strictly Come Dancing. That show goes out in 40 countries. Last month BBC Worldwide announced the opening of a wholly-owned production office in Paris, saying "France is a key market for us". BBC Worldwide has previously licensed to French broadcasters the rights for such shows as The Weakest Link, The Greatest French and The Office.

Russia is the latest of more than 70 countries to have licensed The Office. And BBC Worldwide recently licensed the format of the hugely successful Life on Mars to the Spanish broadcaster Antena3, which intends to set the drama in Madrid in the immediate post-Franco era at the end of the 1970s.

Is it just about distributing BBC programmes?

No. BBC Worldwide has controversially bought in to a number of joint ventures. The company has bought the Australian independent production company The Freehand Group, which makes the Australian version of Top Gear and other shows such as Outback Wildlife Rescue. It now has sole ownership of an Aussie subscription TV channel called UK.TV.

In the same country, it has a joint venture with publishers ACP Magazines to produce titles such as BBC Australia Good Food, with Gordon Ramsay hired as contributing editor. World Wide Media is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide and the huge The Times of India group, producing a portfolio of mass-selling magazines such as Filmfare, India's biggest title, and Femina, the country's largest women's publication.

Earlier this month, BBC Worldwide announced that it would later this year launch Lonely Planet magazine, under licence from the travel guide company, in which it has acquired a majority stake. The intention is to publish the title in other key markets overseas.

BBC Worldwide also has stakes in two start-up UK independent production companies, Left Bank Pictures Ltd, which is making the forthcoming drama Wallander for BBC1, starring Kenneth Branagh, and the feature film The Damned United telling of Brian Clough's spell as manager of Leeds United, and Cliffhanger Productions Ltd, a drama specialist.

And how much does the BBC earn from these activities?

Results for the year to the end of March show that the annual operating profits of BBC Worldwide increased by 17 per cent to £117.7m, the fourth successive year of double-digit profit growth.

According to the BBC director-general Mark Thompson: "It generates profits and dividends that the BBC can reinvest in making outstanding programmes and developing online applications for the benefit of all licence fee payers."

So what's the objection?

At a time when commercial media is under intense economic pressure, there is concern that an organisation that is funded by the licence fee may be skewing the market. Tony Elliott the founder of Time Out, the listings magazine and travel guide company, is furious at BBC Worldwide's backing of his major rival Lonely Planet. At the Edinburgh Television festival last month, he called for BBC Worldwide to be sold off. In the British independent production sector there are worries that money is going on international pursuits instead of being reinvested in programme-making.

The BBC is also under fire for stifling growth elsewhere, with its lifestyle magazine portfolio taking advertising from traditional publishers, its online local news coverage undermining the regional press and its all-powerful website inhibiting the progress of the Internet-based operations of commercial news organisations.

But shouldn't the BBC try to raise income?

Yes. After the painful cost-cutting process following the last disappointing licence fee settlement, the BBC is anxious not to be seen as a burden on the public and show commercial savvy by properly reaping the benefits of the quality shows which the licence fee payers have funded.

Do the critics have a point?

It depends on the business case for some of these ventures. John McVay, chief executive of Pact, which represents the independent sector, says: "Where does the money from BBC Worldwide actually go? Does it go back into programme-making or is it used to cover an overspend on refurbishing Broadcasting House? The BBC is one of the cornerstones of British television production and we want profits to go back into programme-making, that's the only way to reward the licence fee payer."

Where will the BBC go next?

BBC Worldwide is expanding fast, particularly in Australia, India and the United States, which it says it has "identified as top priority markets".

Should the BBC stick to programme-making?

Yes...

* With a licence costing £139.50, British audiences deserve the BBC's total attention

* It is not for the BBC to gamble the public's money on global business adventures

* British commercial media is harmed by the ambitions of a publicly-funded behemoth

No...

* Maximising income from assets makes the BBC less of a drain on the public purse

* When profits are poured back into programmes, the licence fee payer benefits

* BBC Worldwide is helping to promote British cultural excellence around the globe

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