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BBC’s coin rattled

Lawmakers' report impugns spending

LONDON — A highly critical report from Parliament’s media committee may have dealt a severe blow to the BBC’s chances of securing extra funding for its digital services.

The report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport not only rejects most of the proposals for an increase in BBC funding previously put forward by government-appointed economist Gavyn Davies but goes on to attack the legitimacy of services such as BBC News 24 and BBC Choice.

The panel is against a proposed $38 digital license fee to be added to the existing $162 annual tax, arguing that it “would slow take-up of digital television and delay (analog) switch-off,” and that the existing funding formula should continue to 2002.

BBC News 24, a 24-hour news service, is hauled over the coals for costing $86 million a year to run — three times the budget of satcaster BSkyB’s SkyNews — when viewership can be as low as 10,000 viewers. BBC Choice, which airs a lot of repeats, was taken to task for having a similar budget and ratings so low they register as zero.

The committee maintains that the BBC only will deserve more money if it can cut its managerial costs by $480 million. (The Beeb’s annual income is currently $3.5 billion.) Also rejected is a proposal to sell off 49% of BBC Worldwide, the pubcaster’s commercial arm.

The committee — headed by Member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman, who has a reputation as something of a BBC basher — has delivered precisely what the U.K.’s commercial TV sector had hoped for.

Tony Ball, BSkyB’s chief exec, said: “This report is a devastating indictment of the proposal for a digital poll tax, and it clearly rejects the BBC’s demands for massive extra funding. The tax is unfair because it forces customers to pay for minority BBC digital channels which they may not want.”

There is, however, dissension within the committee. Member of Parliament John Maxton will publish a minority report arguing in favor of the BBC’s wish list.

The final say will go to Culture Secretary Chris Smith, who is thought to favor boosting the BBC budget; a decision is due in early 2000.

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