Pubcaster ponies up for entertainer

Edgy but mainstream, irreverent and unrepentantly scatological, the floppy-haired, loud-suited Jonathan Ross might not be Britain’s most popular TV star, but he is certainly the highest paid.

Consequently, one reason why BAFTA and the BBC were so sensitive about confirming Ross would host this year’s BAFTA film awards was because the pubcaster had agreed to pay Ross extra coin for the gong gig, on top of the approximately $11.5 million a year he pockets from hosting his weekend BBC1 talkshow “Friday Night With Jonathan Ross,” movie review skein “Film 2007″ and a Saturday morning BBC radio program.

That Ross, more than any other British entertainer, defines the modern meritocratic BBC in an age when deference is dead says as much about the corporation today and its need to keep the under-40s onboard as it does about the 46-year-old Ross. A brilliant ad-libber, Ross is an experienced awards show presenter and a genuine movie buff, with a deep knowledge and love of pop culture.

When BBC suits finally caved in last summer to Ross’ demands for a three-year contract worth £18 million ($34.2 million), BBC1 controller Peter Fincham was spot-on when he hailed Ross as one of the “defining faces” of his channel. Still, the row over Ross’ hefty paycheck — rival commercial webs accused the Beeb of inflating talent costs — was a PR disaster for the pubcaster. (It is commonly accepted that the competition’s pique derived in part from its failure to lure Ross away from the BBC.)

Extraordinarily, the spat may have derailed the pubcaster’s case for a generous hike to its license fee, paid by all British homes with a TV set.

What is sometimes forgotten in the characteristically British outrage over Ross’ fee is that he worked long and hard for his success. He first made a splash in the U.K. with a talkshow inspired by “Late Night With David Letterman,” Channel 4’s “The Last Resort,” almost 20 years ago.

Ross must know his time at the top of the game cannot last forever, but although TV auds may tire of his charm, he is likely to always be in demand in the less fickle world of radio, where presenters are allowed to grow old with dignity.

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