Thompson unveils Project Barcelona

LONDON — The BBC is set to compete head on with the likes of iTunes by introducing a download-to-own service in the U.K.

The move involves auds buying BBC shows immediately following their first broadcast window.

Outgoing director-general Mark Thompson announced the scheme, called Project Barcelona, during a speech to the Royal Television Society on Wednesday.

The topper, who is expected to quit the Corp. by the end of the year at the latest, said the service would allow viewers to “purchase a digital copy of a program to own and keep for a relatively modest charge.”

Thompson provided no details of pricing or when the initiative would bow, but there was speculation that Brits could end up paying £1.89 ($2.90) for, say, an episode of “Doctor Who” or “Sherlock.”

Attempting to head off criticism from commercial rivals he said: “This is not a second license-fee by stealth or any reduction in the current public service offering from the BBC — it’s the exact analogy of going into a high-street shop to buy a DVD or, before that, a VHS cassette.

“For decades the British public has understood the distinction between watching ‘Dad’s Army’ on BBC1 and then going out to buy a permanent copy of it. Barcelona is the digital equivalent of doing the second.”

Talks over rights had already begun, indicated Thompson, but before Project Barcelona becomes reality it will need to be green-lit by the BBC Trust, which represents license fee payers.

Thompson explained the window would be “non-exclusive” and “open-ended — in other words, the programs would be available permanently.”

He added: “Our ambition would ultimately be to let everyone who pays the license fee access all of our programs on this basis and, over time, to load more and more of our archive into the window.”

Thompson, who seemed unusually relaxed during a question and answer session following the speech, said he did “not propose to lay out an exact timetable” for his departure.

In his speech, he defended his record at dealing with a series of crises that hit the Corp., including the row that led to Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s suspension.

Pointedly he said the BBC’s response to the Brand-Ross affair was swift compared with “the long years of phone hacking.”

He added that in the last eight years the BBC’s annual commercial revenue in the U.S. had trebled.

“It now stands at over half a billion dollars a year,” said Thompson. “‘Doctor Who’ was the single most downloaded program last year on U.S. iTunes.

“‘Dancing With the Stars’ — the international version of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ — is the most successful entertainment format in TV history.”

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