Head hunters hired to prep change at top

LONDON — Head hunters have been hired to produce a succession plan for the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson as speculation increases that he could step down after this summer’s London Olympics.

BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten has appointed international recruitment firm, Egon Zehnder, to produce the plan by Easter — a highly unusual step for the pubcaster.

“I want us to be able, when the time comes, to have an intelligent view of who are possible successors and where successors should come from and what sort of job we should want them to be doing,” Patten told The Times.

Employing the recruitment specialists did not, said Patten, “warrant the headline ‘Starting gun fired for Mark Thompson succession.’ ”

Thompson has been in the job since 2004, a relatively long time for what is a highly exposed role in British public life.

While there appears to be no obvious pressure from Patten for the director-general to quit, the time may be right for both parties.

Thompson recently oversaw the delivery of £700 million ($1.1 billion) of cuts following the coalition government’s license fee freeze in October 2010, and the successful move of 2,300 jobs from London to BBC North in Salford, Manchester.

Moreover, the BBC is on a roll creatively thanks to content natural history series “Frozen Planet,” homegrown dramas “Sherlock” and critically praised two-parter “Birdsong,” plus quirky factual shows including “The Great British Bake Off” and “Stargazing Live.”

For once, its legions of critics in the U.K. press, distracted by the fall-out from the News of the World phone hacking story, have fallen mostly silent.

In public, Patten has gone out of his way to praise Thompson’s achievements, but like all his predecessors he will ultimately want to hire a director-general of his own choosing — and likely for less than the approximate $1 million the incumbent earns.

There is no shortage of suitable successors in the U.K. but toppers working in U.S. media will also attract Egon Zehnder’s interest.

As for Thompson’s next job, he might move across the Atlantic as his wife, Jane, is American.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more