LONDON — New BBC toppers like to prove their virility by axing jobs and restructuring.
Greg Dyke, fired by the pubcaster’s board of governors last January after clashing with the government over the BBC’s Iraqi war coverage, was the exception.
He increased staff numbers by taking employees off short-term contracts and embarked on a morale-boosting expansion plan, launching new channels, upping program budgets and encouraging the BBC’s commercial activities to raise their game.
But his successor, the more risk-averse Mark Thompson, is reverting to type.
Since taking over at the pubcaster less than six months ago, the Beeb’s corridors have again started to twitch with paranoia.
Around Broadcasting House, the air is thick with speculation that staff numbers are about to be decimated.
“I think you’re looking at thousands of job cuts — perhaps as many as 5,000,” opines a source. “Greg hired loads of people. Some departments don’t even have a record of how many people they’ve got.”
Independent producers are poised to make big inroads at the pubcaster because the government wants to encourage the sector.
Meanwhile, parts of commercial division BBC Worldwide risk being sold off after talks with U.S. media congloms including Time-Warner and Disney.
Where the ax will fall is not yet clear, but losses in TV production, human resources and the news division look likely.
Thompson, who in his previous job returned rival U.K. broadcaster Channel 4 to profit, is determined to deliver “self help” measures (i.e. cost cuts) to ensure the pubcaster’s Royal Charter, which covers its operation and funding, is renewed on terms that guarantee the license fee for the foreseeable future.
Up to a quarter of BBC staffers, some 6,000 employees, could be looking for new employment once Thompson’s internal reviews are completed by the end of the month.
Staff numbers increased by 4,000 under Dyke; according to the BBC Annual Report, the pubcaster employed 23,640 people in the year to March 2000, when Dyke took over. By the time he ankled, there were 27,632 on the payroll.
“When the charter is renewed, the license fee will be retained,” says one of Thompson’s advisers. “But part of the deal will involve upping the amount of independent production — there’s going to be substantially less inhouse production.”
A former topper at commercial rival ITV adds: “The BBC is simply preparing to do what Granada did 10 years ago — slimming down its inhouse production activities so it can become a much more flexible and efficient production house.
“Perhaps a minimum of 50% of programs will be made inhouse, 25% will go to indies and the other 25% will be up for grabs.
“You keep the staff for banker shows, but otherwise only crew up when necessary.”
Tellingly, the BBC’s former chairman, Christopher Bland, recently called for the independent quota to be raised from the current 25% — consistently flouted by Dyke — to 40%.
But Bland, believed to have the ear of the new chairman, Michael Grade, warned against the BBC disposing of Worldwide, responsible for exports and a raft of overseas webs include BBC America.
“International program distribution is absolutely critical because of its link to program funding. It makes no sense to separate international sales,” Bland says.
New BBC chief operating officer John Smith, a BBC vet described by ex-director general John Birt as a “sharp, funny, fast-talking accountant” and a key player in Thompson’s BBC, is looking at the future of all the outfit’s commercial activities, including Worldwide.
Last year Worldwide contributed $254 million in cash to BBC coffers.
But according to Smith, Worldwide’s profits need to double within two years.
Some commentators have interpreted this as a signal that the division is being fattened up for a sell-off, but insiders say this is not the case.
“The core activities, including distribution and the channels business, are not going to be sold off,” reckons a senior BBC Worldwide executive. “There isn’t a broadcaster in the world that doesn’t distribute its own programs.”
But the BBC’s extensive magazine portfolio, headed by listings weekly Radio Times, may well become a joint venture, and other parts, including BBC Resources, may end up as a public/private partnership, too.
“It’s an issue of commercial efficiency,” concludes a consultant who has worked for Dyke and Thompson.
“At Channel 4, Mark showed that he was prepared to be ruthless to achieve his objectives. I believe that is what he’s doing at the BBC. If I were a BBC producer, I’d be alarmed, but in future there will be more opportunities outside the organization.”