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BBC aims squarely for AOL, Google

Beeb expanding new media biz around the world

LONDON — In a move likely to draw further criticism from commercial rivals, the mighty BBC is ramping up its activities on the global stage in a bid to take on U.S. Internet giants such as Google and AOL.

BBC director general Mark Thompson on Tuesday claimed the Beeb is the only European brand capable of taking on Google and AOL, which have been aggressively moving into the TV space with the recent launch of online video services such as Google Video and In2TV.

The BBC already has a large global presence online through its news Web site. Thompson, in an interview with the Financial Times, said BBC Worldwide is looking at a number of initiatives to expand its new-media business around the world. Plans include the launch of an ad-funded Web site for the international market by the end of the year; Worldwide is also looking at the acquisition of video-on-demand services and the expansion of its publishing biz overseas.

Last year the commercial arm generated sales of £706 million ($1.3 billion) and profit before interest and tax of $102.9 million. New-media activities reported a loss of $8.6 million on sales of $54 million.

In a speech in London last week, Thompson noted the BBC’s competition now includes Internet brands like MSN, Google, Yahoo! and Apple. “The days when you could say that the real competition or the real broadcasting market was the BBC plus ITV are long since gone,” he said.

The expansion comes at a time when the Beeb is facing growing criticism from the commercial sector over its calls for an increase to the license fee of inflation plus 2.3% beginning next year. Rivals, including ITV and the commercial radio lobby, are opposed to the increase, while the conservative party is calling for stricter rules to prevent the BBC from putting its Internet rivals out of business.

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