BBC gets tough with new webs

LONDON — BBC maverick director general Greg Dyke is in expansionist mode, so count on the pubcaster’s execs to pack a long shopping list as they head for Mip.

Dyke’s strategy for refocusing the BBC’s networks, including the two terrestrial webs, BBC1 and BBC2, has caused a king-size row in the U.K.

BBC1 is becoming more ratings-driven, with more drama, including a fourth weekly episode of flagship soap “EastEnders,” more entertainment and more event movies.

This, say the critics, risks compromising the station’s credibility as a public service provider.

Meanwhile, BBC2 is abandoning the quest for youth as it targets the over 35s.

But it is Dyke’s plan to create four services on digital channels, embracing two new children’s webs to air in daytime that’s seriously infuriating the commercial camp.

BBC3 will be aimed at a youngish audience; BBC4 intends to replicate the more cerebral voice of Radio 4, the BBC’s speech service cherished by the thinking classes.

Commercial broadcasters are claiming unfair competition and an abuse of license fee coin. They want the government, which must approve the digital channels, to rein in Dyke’s empire-building.

No verdict from the politicos will be given this side of Mip. Within the industry no one thinks the government, will block Dyke’s proposals outright but he might have to wait until the summer to get the greenlight because of Blighty’s looming general election.

Even so, expect a busy time for BBC buyers hoping to earmark programming for the new digital nets, particularly BBC3.

The pubcaster head of acquisitions Sophie Turner Laing explains: “BBC3 has very specific requirements. It’s still not clear exactly what the channel’s needs are in terms of bought-in programs but at Mip we will be looking for prospective series, especially drama and sitcom.”

Aside from factual programming, BBC4’s buyers might be eyeing foreign-language films.

As for the requirements of BBC1 and BBC2, one of the few gaps in the schedules that an imported series might fill is latenight Saturdays on the former. The imminent demise of veteran soccer highlights show “Match of the Day” could create an opening for an acquisition.

Excluding movies, BBC1 primetime is a no-go zone for acquired fare.

On BBC2, “The Simpsons” rates consistently as the web’s second-most-popular series, beaten only by domestic quiz show “The Weakest Link.” “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is another valuable asset for BBC2, now outrating “The X-Files.”

Anything that grabs the attention of BBC1 or BBC2 at Mip might also appeal to Channel 5, the upstart private web about to celebrate its fourth birthday. A hefty deal to acquire “Gladiator” (a joint purchase with Channel 4 but one that gave C5 the first window) demonstrates that C5 is in the market for fare that would have been considered too costly in the past.

Says C5 acquisitions maven Jeff Ford: “The fact that we’ve got more money does not mean that we will pay more for the kind of programming that we’ve bought in the past. But it enables us to afford more firstrun movies, bigger library packages and the really big drama series, not that there have been many of these recently.”

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