'Executive game' helps BBC chiefs learn to compete

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The Independent Online
FOR THE past two days 50 senior BBC executives, holed up in a hotel near the Dartford tunnel, have spent pounds 1.5bn on two and a half years' worth of television programmes.

At short notice they undertook to cover a major state outside broadcast, lost a crucial sporting contract and found their own in- house facilities being undercut by an independent producer prepared to run at a loss because it had just had a major cash injection.

But no one panicked and they might well have been using Monopoly money.

It was all part of a carefully organised 'simulation' designed to 'crash test' the corporation's new producer choice system, which comes into effect next April.

'We didn't actually crash,' Will Wyatt, managing director of network television, said. 'But we skidded and we narrowly missed oncoming traffic.'

A Harry Enfield Christmas Special had to be retitled Easter Special because it was delivered four months late, while a senior executive nearly resigned one year into the game.

At one end of the big room in which the 48-hour simulation took place, senior management 'received' the licence fee, which then 'travelled' through channel controllers and commissioning editors to producers and heads of departments buying the facilities to make the programmes.

While unpredictable variables such as the loss of a sporting contract were fed into the game, producers struck deals with managers representing BBC resources and facilities such as filming, scenery or studios.

If they got a better deal buying in from outside the corporation, then outside they went.

BBC executives like Janet Street-Porter, Head of Youth and Entertainment Features, played the roles of hungry independent producers hustling for BBC business.

'BBC resource managers and producers were as wily and inventive and determined as anyone anywhere else,' Mr Wyatt said.

'The main message we have learned is how to phase cash over the year and to get efficiency without losing quality.'

When the variables were fed in, he said they had quickly to 'look again at strategy and cut programmes'.

The one factor missing in the game was the making of the programmes themselves. 'It was an assumption that the quality was there in the programmes,' a spokesman said.

At the end of the exercise yesterday, Mr Wyatt reported that the BBC resource units had 'more than broken even', that the corporation had made the programmes it had promised it would and that it had easily achieved its quota of 25 per cent of programme-making coming from outside producers.

Under the new system of producer choice, BBC producers are free to buy any facilities - from design to outside broadcasts - from the BBC or from external sources.

The BBC is introducing the system of competition with outside suppliers in a bid to ensure that a higher proportion of the licence fee is spent on making programmes.