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Brit Ball batters Beeb

Exec shakes up Edinburgh TV fest; Albrecht eyes U.K.

EDINBURGH, Scotland — BSkyB topper Tony Ball fired the first round in the BBC’s charter renewal debate Friday, urging that the U.K. pubcaster be prohibited from using $4.2 billion in annual license fees to buy American TV shows.

Ball said the BBC spent more than $156 million on foreign shows this year, a 29% increase compared with five years ago. The pubcaster airs almost 70 hours of acquired programming each week, most of it from the U.S.

Ball’s comments were just one of the contentious topics to arise at the Edinburgh Intl. Television Festival, the Blighty TV industry’s influential annual confab in the Scottish capital, which unspooled Friday to Sunday. Some 1,700 execs also heard:

  • BBC director general Greg Dyke’s surprise plea in favor of the merger of commercial rival ITV’s shareholders Granada and Carlton.

  • HBO’s Chris Albrecht reveal tentative plans to bow an HBO UK channel.

Ball’s keynote James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on Friday set a combative tone for the three-day confab.

“I cannot see why public money is being diverted to those poor struggling Hollywood studios in this way,” he said. “BBC resources should be redeployed to commission more independently produced U.K. programming.”

The BBC’s license fees are derived from taxes levied on every U.K. home with a TV, and are ostensibly earmarked for public-service programming. Critics of the pubcaster’s spending say the fees should be spent on more homegrown programming, not on acquiring foreign shows.

Ball questioned why the pubcaster had reportedly paid Warner Bros. $15.6 million for the terrestrial rights to the first “Harry Potter” movie, which it plans to air Christmas Day, and described it as a “clear example of executive vanity supplanting public service ethos.”

He suggested that the BBC be forced to sell up to six of its most populist programs that are more than 2 years old, such as quizzer “The Weakest Link” and hospital drama “Holby City,” to U.K. commercial broadcasters to raise cash to invest in new quality shows.

“Public funding should not be used to continue to fund programs when it is clear that they can find a commercial home,” said Ball. “The BBC does have a role as an innovator and a risk-taker. But I would ensure that there is an objective mechanism in place to make sure it’s not spending on programs that crowd out commercial operators.”

Ball also announced the results of an NOP poll commissioned by BSkyB that showed that 51% of U.K. viewers did not think the license fee “provides good value for money,” up from 42% four years ago. The poll was carried out in June, before the BBC’s report on the government’s “sexed up” Iraq dossier.

The BBC, whose funding is being reviewed as part of its charter renewal in 2006, dismissed the proposal, claiming that Ball’s comments “have to be seen in the context of Rupert Murdoch’s long and hostile campaign against the BBC.”

“This speech clearly reflects BSkyB’s view that programs are merely a commodity to be bought and sold. It is also worth noting that just 5% of all U.K. pay TV revenue is invested in original programming, compared to 60% of the BBC’s income,” the BBC statement said.

Meanwhile, ITV got an unlikely champion: BBC topper Dyke called for the proposed $6.3 billion ITV merger to go ahead to create a healthy broadcasting market in the U.K.

Dyke said a weak ITV was not in the interest of the BBC or the broadcasting industry. However, he warned that the country’s biggest commercial network, backed by Carlton and Granada, would have to change or face a bleak future.

In three years, ITV1’s audience share has fallen from 30% to 24% and its revenues dropped from $3.1 billion to $2.7 billion. Adding to its financial woes, it must also hand over $468 million a year to the government for its licenses, which will start to come up for renewal in 2004.

Dyke said super-regulator Ofcom and the government should recognize that ITV was no longer a “cash cow” and that paying more for licenses was not sustainable even in the short term.

He predicted that if its annual fee for its license to broadcast was not reduced it would result in a cut in spending on local and network programming and ultimately could result in ITV scrapping its public service programming covering children’s shows, religious, education, current affairs and the arts.

The government “will have to make it commercially attractive to ITV to remain a public service broadcaster,” warned Dyke. “The days of doing it by decree are rapidly coming to an end, and the days of charging ITV hundreds of millions of pounds for the privilege of being a broadcaster are certainly numbered.”

Delivering the Worldview Address on Sunday, HBO chief exec Chris Albrecht said the pay cabler could launch a service in Blighty if it can find a “business model that makes sense.”

“The idea of partnering with a company or creating an HBO-style network is something that is exciting to us but needs a real business model,” said Albrecht. “We need viable distribution that can support it. And where does the programming come from?”

Warner Bros. currently sells most HBO product to Channel 4 or the BBC. This means that HBO’s top shows “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under” would not be available for an HBO U.K. channel until its terrestrial and pay TV contracts have expired.

HBO could offer its programming on video-on-demand once the technology becomes widely available in the U.K. This delivery is already being considered by HBO in Canada, where program licenses are due to expire this year.

“It might be an interesting way for us to distribute our product and doesn’t fall under the same restrictions that broadcast networks do in terms of ownership and viewing,” said Albrecht.