MPs rein in BBC’s commercial arm

Politicians suggest bail-out for rival Channel 4

LONDON — An influential group of British politicians has demanded that the BBC rein in its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and bail-out struggling rival Channel 4, the state-owned web that relies on advertising for funding.

The government’s culture, media and sport committee was irked by Worldwide’s decision last year to buy Lonely Planet, the company that publishes travel guides, because it has no ties to the pubcaster’s content.

It warned that any future business deals “must have a clear link with core BBC programming.”

“We are in no doubt that the BBC should seek to obtain the maximum value from its brand and assets in order to reduce the pressure on the license fee,” said committee chairman John Whittingdale. “However, in many cases there is no reason why the BBC need undertake commercial activities itself and where it does there should be a clear link to BBC programming.”

Last year Worldwide, which sells programs, formats, magazines, DVDs and books based on BBC brands, announced a profit of £118 million ($174 million).

The wider BBC, which has a $5 billion annual budget funded by a license fee paid by all U.K. homes with a TV, has been criticized for chasing commercial revenues by rivals who are struggling against the decline in advertising.

On the controversial issue of a tie-up between BBC Worldwide and Channel 4, the subject of intense negotiations between both parties and government ministers, the pols said it was a non-starter.

“We therefore reiterate our previous recommendation that a proportion of the license fee should be made available to C4 in order for it to sustain its public service programming,” a committee spokesman said.

Embarrassingly, the committee’s report was published as it emerged that the BBC, which has a strong new media presence in the U.K., is testing live streaming of its core services on cell phones.