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Ball bawls out fat cat BBC

BSkyB chief exec proposes changes to pubcaster

LONDON — The uneasy truce between Britain’s two dominant TV players, the BBC and the Rupert Murdoch-controlled BSkyB, has turned into open warfare — and the satcaster is gunning for the pubcaster’s exclusive right to the $4.2 billion license fee that funds its activities.

As delegates returned last week from the annual Edinburgh Intl. TV Festival, having witnessed the skirmish between the two diametrically opposed broadcasters, many felt that BSkyB’s abrasive chief exec Tony Ball had drawn blood.

In the gabfest’s keynote address, the MacTaggart lecture, Ball outlined three proposals to cut the pubcaster down to size.

The first — and most controversial — involved forcing the Beeb to auction up to six of its most popular shows that are more than 2 years old to rival commercial stations.

The cash generated by this would be used to fund “innovative and risky popular” programs and so, argued Ball, maximize the use of public funds for creative purposes.

Ball’s second suggestion was that all the BBC networks should have a clear remit and measurable criteria against which they are regularly judged. At present, only the new digital webs — BBC3 and 4, and kids’ services CBeebies and CBBC — are subject to third-party monitoring by the government.

Finally, Ball proposed that the BBC should be prevented from buying American fare. The $150 million the pubcaster spends in Hollywood could be diverted into domestic production.

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

Ball, noticeably bad-tempered in a follow-up question-and-answer session on his plans, also outlined the results of an NOP survey commissioned by BSkyB showing that 51% of the U.K. public did not think the license fee provides good value for money — up from 42% four years ago.

BBC bashing, from both sides of the political spectrum, is something of an Edinburgh tradition — and industryites often use the MacTaggart lecture to air controversial issues.

But the timing of Ball’s attack is spot-on. It comes on the eve of a government-backed inquiry into the BBC and another examination of the license fee, this one led by ex-Five and BSkyB exec David Elstein, and initiated by the opposition Conservative Party.

The findings of these studies are expected to influence the debate on the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2006 and the key question of how the license fee should operate.

A groundswell of opinion is gathering that other U.K. broadcasters with public service responsibilities should get a slice of the license fee pie.

BBC flak catchers are used to going on the offensive at Edinburgh, but the force of the corporation’s response to Ball took fest veterans by surprise.

The Beeb slammed Ball’s speech as part of Murdoch’s “long and hostile campaign” against it.

“This speech,” it added, “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 revenue is invested in original programming, compared to 60% of the BBC’s income.”

Lorraine Heggessey, controller of flagship service BBC1, whose critics claim she has turned the net into a clone of a commercial web, went still further.

She accused Murdoch of being “a capitalist imperialist” who is “against everything the BBC stands for.”

“I haven’t heard one senior person in the industry who has taken that proposal (to auction BBC1 hits) remotely seriously,” Heggessey insisted.

In fact, the reaction to Ball’s ideas was by no means universally hostile.

In a separate session at Edinburgh, featuring an interview with culture minister Tessa Jowell, moderator Ray Snoddy, media editor of the Times newspaper, was surprised to find his audience split roughly down the middle when questioned on the BSkyB blueprint for the Beeb.

“OK, it was only a straw poll,” says a disillusioned BBC supporter. “A lot of people think that today’s BBC is too driven by commercial priorities and needs to be reined back. The new digital channels, especially BBC3 and 4, are a disaster and are a misuse of public money.”

“Greg Dyke (the BBC’s director general) is brilliant at managing his staff, but he needs to work much harder at winning the debate with the politicians,” adds a member of Elstein’s committee.

As for Dyke himself, interviewed at the gabfest he exuded confidence and obvious leadership qualities — in sharp contrast to Ball’s irritability.

“Today, the accusation is that the BBC is too successful, too powerful and too competitive,” he said. “As I’ve said before, this is one of the few jobs in the world where you get crap for losing and crap for doing well.”