Watchdog growls at BBC on public service

B'caster prepping case for 2006 license renewal

LONDON — Patricia Hodgson, departing CEO of U.K. watchdog the Independent Television Commission, has warned the BBC to clarify its public-service position or risk having super-regulator Ofcom dictate it.

The pubcaster, which has been accused of being too commercial, is preparing its case for the renewal of its public-service charter in 2006, where it also will have to defend its funding. The BBC is financed by an annual £116 ($187) license fee paid by every TV-owning household, which raises $4 billion a year and allows it to remain free of advertising.

“The BBC is the public service marker,” Hodgson said. “It needs to give us a vision of what it will mean in the changed marketplace, or Ofcom may be tempted to do it for them.”

Hodgson said Ofcom also would need to understand how investment in programming could affect the quality of public-service broadcasting. She outlined three issues that would have to be decided by the new regulator: the importance of maintaining diversity of funding and competition to increase program investment; the importance for the commercial networks of targets for creative output; and robust funding for public-service broadcasting.

Hodgson also stressed the importance of having a strong “third force” in broadcasting alongside the BBC and satcaster BSkyB, because “however great these two giants are, they will not provide everything our culture requires.”

She said the “third force” would not be just commercial giant ITV but also Channel 4 and Five. “ITV is finally achieving scale, but will go where its commercial interests take it,” she added. “Channel 4 may be a key piece in the jigsaw, but it hasn’t yet got the scale it needs to play that part.”

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