BBC bracing for budget cuts

Summer marked by scandals just got longer

LONDON — The BBC has endured a grim summer having to cope with controversies over rigged phone quizzes and a documentary about the Queen that used faked footage as a trailer.

But the fall could be even worse.

This is because the pubcaster’s 20,000-odd staff are bracing for deep budget cuts that may result in the closure of a channel.

“Nothing is ruled out,” BBC chairman Michael Lyons said recently.BBC finances are notoriously opaque and complex. However, director general Mark Thompson needs to save around £2 billion ($4 billion) over six years because the government gave the BBC much less than Thompson asked for when the new license fees, paid by every British home with a TV, were set in January.

The BBC is working out where the ax should fall at a time of big digital changes that could, as one of the Beeb’s most respected presenters, Jeremy Paxman, noted at last week’s Edinburgh TV Festival, undermine the basis for the license fee.

“The idea of a tax on the ownership of a television belongs to the 1950s,” he said, arguing that unless the BBC has a clear vision for the future and invests in its flagship programs, support for a well-funded BBC could evaporate.

Paxman touched a raw nerve as the internal arguments rage over which parts of the pubcaster should bear the brunt of the economies.

Speaking at the Edinburgh confab, BBC Vision head Jana Bennett appeared to rule out axing a channel — the likely candidate is digital web BBC3, famous for launching “Little Britain.”

Bennett called for a reduction in the number of programs made but “not a reduction in the rich offering we need to give audiences,” interpreted as a signal that BBC3, costing around $180 million a year, will survive.

Thompson and his lieutenants have made it clear they believe the BBC must make fewer programs.

In what was intended as an agenda-setting speech on July 12, Thompson outlined this rationale: “The BBC should concentrate its finite resources on rather fewer, better hours of TV, radio and fewer, better web pages.

“After years of expansion of the total volume of content this next period in the BBC’s history should be about a focus on content that really makes a difference.”

In some parts of the BBC this “fewer, bigger, better” approach is causing paranoia.

Makers of factual fare feel acutely vulnerable. This is because indies are responsible for a lot of these shows, and BBC staffers believe further cuts would compromise quality.

A case in point is the “Storyville” documentary strand, where 60% cuts are planned.

British helmer Michael Apted is campaigning against cuts to “Storyville,” whose past docs have included films on Muhammad Ali and new recruits to the U.S. Army.

Apted insists that “Storyville” encapsulates public service broadcasting at its finest.

“Working in America, where documentary has been virtually exiled from mainstream television, I am acutely aware of the importance of the ‘Storyville’ strand,” he says.

There are rumors of 400 to 500 job cuts in news, a department that is easier to pare down than drama or entertainment, because news is done on a daily basis, inhouse, involving fixed costs. Drama and entertainment shows are often made outside the BBC with less predictable resource-levels committed months in advance.

But BBC chairman Lyons believes news and public affairs must remain central to the public service mission.

Arguably, he could force Thompson’s hand when it comes to thinking the unthinkable and ditching a channel.

Some, however, reckon the debate over BBC cuts is being over simplified and that Thompson may have greater flexibility with his finances than is assumed.

“There is no doubt that the spend, spend, spend years are over,” says Steve Hewlett, a former editor of BBC public affairs flagship “Panorama.” “The BBC is a big, complex beast and it would be unwise to take any of these figures at face value because there are so many factors at play.”

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