Beeb blitz hits 3,000 staffers

BBC takes axe to jobs, budget

LONDON — In its biggest shakeup in more than a decade, the BBC will cut nearly 3,000 jobs and £320 million ($576 million) from its annual budget.

The changes — described as a “transformation” by their architect, new director general Mark Thompson — are designed to simplify the cumbersome organization.

Tuesday’s announcement follows reviews spanning all areas of the broadcaster set up by Thompson shortly after he took over at the BBC five months ago.

The changes include the following:

  • The loss of 2,500 jobs in support areas such as finance, property and business affairs, plus 400 jobs in documentary department Factual and Learning.

  • Savings of $576 million per year from the $3.8 billion budget, including a cut of 15% to program budgets for the next three years.

  • More independent production as inhouse producers are cut back.

  • The likely sale of or new partnership deals for BBC Resources and BBC Broadcast, either ending or scaling down their relationship with commercial wing BBC Worldwide.

However, there will be more investment in news, drama, comedy and original children’s fare, including niche webs CBeebies and CBBC.

Presenting the news to the BBC’s 27,000 U.K. staff, who for weeks have braced themselves for the bombshell, Thompson said the ax had to fall if the BBC was to thrive in the digital world.

He said: “My vision for the future of the BBC has three parts: a bold new program and content strategy based around the idea of excellence; a transformation of the BBC into a state-of-the-art digital broadcaster; and an irreversible shift in the culture of the BBC toward simplicity, opportunity and creativity.”

It is not clear how many jobs will go ultimately. But the announced elimination of 2,900 jobs is just the first phase of a process that will last months.

If the BBC decides to sell Resources and Broadcast, the figure may reach 5,000 — still below the 6,000 rumored in the past weeks.

It remains to be seen if Thompson’s reforms are substantial enough to satisfy critics, who include the pubcaster’s commercial rivals, including Rupert Murdoch-backed satcaster BSkyB.

“I think Mark could get rid of 10,000 jobs and the BBC would still be able to fulfill all its responsibilities,” said the head of a rival broadcaster.

Competitors also were less than complimentary about BBC’s plans to move parts of its operation outside London — in five years.

Thompson denied the changes were being introduced under pressure from the government, which soon will publish an important pre-legislative document on the BBC, called a Green Paper in the U.K., leading up to the 2006 renewal of its Royal Charter, which sets its funding.

Private competitors will be disappointed that BBC Worldwide’s core activities are to remain inhouse. Among these are program sales and the international channels business that includes BBC America, BBC World and BBC Prime.

But magazines not directly related to programming, like women’s mag Eve, will be sold and the BBC will stop touting them on-air.

The pubcaster’s chief operating officer, John Smith, who headed up the review of the BBC’s commercial activities, said more global webs are in the pipeline.

He said: “We don’t have an exact strategy, but we have the borrowing facility. We will look at parts of the world where we are not already operating and at genres, like children’s, for launching niche channels where we have the archive and the rights.”

U.K. indies will be pleased by Tuesday’s announcement. The reforms will give them the opportunity to pitch for up to another 25% of the BBC’s output on top of the 25% quota that already exists and was consistently flouted under Thompson’s predecessor, Greg Dyke.

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