Known internally as a "Birtian" because of his close association with John Birt, the BBC's director-general, Mr Thompson, 38, said: "The ability of the channel to serve so many people so well is what makes it such a rich and interesting channel. I am determined to keep that momentum up."
BBC2 has performed well above expectations in recent years, under the direction of Michael Jackson, who last month was named director of television and controller of BBC1 under a controversial management restructuring. His replacement by Mr Thompson completes the main appointments under the reorganisation, which saw BBC1's former controller, Alan Yentob, become director of programmes for BBC production.
Mr Jackson, who was responsible for such BBC2 hits as Our Friends in the North and The House, a documentary about the Royal Opera House, said Mr Thompson would bring "a great deal of intelligence and flair to the channel". Mr Thompson said: "The direction BBC2 is heading is the right one, and we must keep absolute faith with the BBC2 heartland." He said the channel had become more popular but had not lost sight of its mission to provide quality drama and documentaries.
The appointment will havedisappointed Paul Hamman, head of documentaries, who had been widely tipped. Also passed over was Jeremy Gibson, head of features at BBC Bristol.
Mr Birt had been criticised for his restructuring of the BBC's production and broadcasting operations. Mr Thompson yesterday defended the Birtian revolution, saying: "The changes that John has suggested make sense, and I think overall the way BBC has changed over the past few years has been for the better."
Mr Birt has also been criticised for appointing only men to senior positions in his restructuring. A BBC spokesman rejected the criticism, saying there had been more than one woman on the short-list.
BBC2 last year overtook Channel 4 as the country's third most popular channel, with an 11.2 per cent audience share.
Mr Thompson has been with the BBC since 1979. He became editor of the Nine O'Clock News in 1988 and editor of Panorama in 1990.
Sir Christopher Bland, BBC chairman, has written to all 242 MPs who signed a Commons motion seeking guarantees over the future of the World Service, telling them the corporation "can unhesitatingly give those guarantees".Reuse content