Has the BBC marked its man?

20 years at pubcaster may hamper topper Thompson

LONDON — So much for the BBC being a modern, forward-thinking media combine. For the first time since the 1980s, the world’s most successful pubcaster has appointed one of its own to lead the organization and guide it out of the post-Hutton morass.

Or has it?

Mark Thompson, who accepted the director general’s job in mid-May despite repeated avowals that he still had a job to finish as CEO of Channel 4, is a complicated character, difficult to sum up in a soundbite — unlike his immediate predecessor, Greg Dyke.

“Industry commentators are saying that Mark will be less commercial than Greg, but from what I’ve seen of him he is a deeply competitive operator. He likes to win,” says an industry source.

Others regard the new director general, due to take over later this summer, in a different light.

They claim Thompson, 46, who worked at the BBC for more than 20 years before jumping ship 2½ years ago to run C4, is a BBC man through and through, cautious and risk-averse.

“Mark may have spent two years at C4,” says a rival web head, “but he is an outsider who is, in fact, the consummate insider.

“There are real dangers here. One of the BBC’s biggest weaknesses is seeing the world through its own eyes. At this time in its history, it needs to think radically about the future. But Mark will be more safety-first than radical.”

In theory, the Oxford-educated Thompson could not be more different from the charismatic and deeply entrepreneurial Dyke, ousted in January after the Hutton report castigated the BBC for sloppy journalism and inept management during its coverage of the Iraq war.

While action man Dyke shoots from the lip, as demonstrated by his not infrequent attacks on Prime Minister Tony Blair and News Corp. king Rupert Murdoch, Thompson, who lectures in theology at Oxford and flies aircraft in his spare time, is a more cerebral, conciliatory figure.

But as Dyke’s former director of TV at the BBC, much of the thinking that propelled the outfit to its dominant position in British terrestrial broadcasting and beyond (the BBC’s Web sites are the most popular in Europe) in fact came from Thompson.

Thompson’s biggest challenge is squaring the circle between providing quality programs and making shows auds want to watch, thus protecting the legitimacy of the license fee levied on every British household with a TV.

Fortunately for the BBC, Thompson is an effective lobbyist who is good at making the case for public-service broadcasting in the digital age.

Many believe Dyke, initially aided by Thompson, went too far in driving ratings at the expense of quality, and was too aggressive in securing bottom-line growth at the pubcaster’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

Under the old regime, independent producers suffered from BBC strong-arm tactics and the consistent flouting of the quotas that should guarantee indies make 25% of the pubcaster’s schedules.

The expectation is that Thompson, who will have to make the case for renewing the BBC’s charter (due in 2006) in tandem with new chairman Michael Grade, will continue to shift the pubcaster’s channels upscale, at least until the charter is in the bag.

He also is expected to adopt a less commercial approach to commercial arm BBC Worldwide, perhaps seeking partnerships with rivals. He may provide a better deal for indies, especially as he now has a better understanding of the sector since working at C4, which takes all its programs from indies.

As a former high-flyer in BBC news and current affairs, if anyone can repair the damage done by Hutton, it is Thompson.

“Mark will run a more rigorous regime than Greg,” opines Will Wyatt, ex-CEO of BBC Broadcast and the man responsible for appointing Thompson to run BBC2 in 1996.

“He will have a better understanding of the BBC’s public purposes and will make sure he keeps the big picture and the full range of the BBC’s activities in mind at all times. Mark is much less visceral than Greg.”

But will he be as much fun to work for? And will his control-freak tendencies undo the good work Dyke accomplished in making the BBC a much happier place?

“If Mark has a weakness,” says a former colleague, “it is his fondness for doing things on his own.

“He could get away with that at Channel 4 because, compared with the BBC, it is a relatively small organization, but he will need to be much more hands-off as director general.

“There is always a temptation for BBC directors general to take on too much. As Dyke found out the hard way, directors general cannot be omnipresent.”

Meanwhile, a short list is beginning to emerge for Thompson’s replacement at C4, where an appointment is expected within a month.

Dawn Airey, a former C4 commissioning editor and now managing director of Sky Networks, is the favorite, but some inside the Beeb wonder if she has enough public-service credibility.

Other likely candidates are Peter Bazalgette, head of Endemol U.K.; Peter Fincham, CEO of Talkback Thames; and Rupert Gavin, CEO of BBC Worldwide.

Gavin is believed to have been a runnerup when Thompson was appointed at C4 in 2001.

If he figures Worldwide will be less important to a Thompson-led BBC than it was to the Dyke regime, he could apply again.