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BBC chief issues funding warning

Lyons says program quality at risk

OXFORD — The chairman of the BBC has warned that any attempt to share the license fee that funds the pubcaster with other British broadcasters risks diminishing program quality.

In a carefully worded keynote speech at the Oxford Media Convention, Michael Lyons told an audience of policy wonks that auds could lose out if the nature of the license fee — paid by all TV watching Brits — was changed.

The idea of giving a slice of the fee — known as “top-slicing” — to rival webs, in return for investing in public service content, is gaining political momentum in the U.K.

But Lyons, appointed to chair the BBC Trust last year, warned that “top slicing” would represent a “very fundamental change in the ecology of public service broadcasting.”

He added: “The commercial PSBs (public service broadcasters) and the BBC compete…for audiences, but not for revenue. The result is for all the players to invest in high quality U.K. content, with — so far, at least — enough money from a diversity of sources to enable that to happen…

“But now the system is coming under strain as the downturn in TV advertising and the tight license fee settlement put pressure on revenues.

“So the question here must be: Is this the right moment to put the system under further strain by changing the fundamental nature of the license fee?

“Are we quite clear what the effect of that would be on the system as a whole?”

Lyons claimed that the BBC Trust was not interested in “blindly defending the status quo,” but said that it was essential to hold a public debate before any decisions are taken on the future funding of the BBC.

Earlier this week, the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson said more coin was needed for public service broadcasting in Blighty.

The BBC is in the throes of an economy drive that will see the loss of around 1,800 staff due to last year’s license fee settlement, which gave the corp. considerably less money than it had asked for.