BBC unveils a slew of cuts

Pubcaster will channel coin into local content

What do British rock icon David Bowie, media mogul James Murdoch and U.K. business bible, the Financial Times, all have in common? Each one is piling the pressure on the BBC.

The world’s biggest pubcaster is attempting to appease its critics by announcing a program of cuts that will see it re-allocate around a fifth of its cost base — some £600 million ($907 million) — back into domestically produced programs and news gathering.

As part of the plan, on March 2 the BBC confirmed that digital radio stations 6Music and the Asian Network, plus multi-media teen brands Switch and Blast! would be axed.

The Corp. will cut 20% from its annual $151 million film and TV acquisitions budget and 25% from the budget for website BBC.co.uk. All these changes are subject to public consultation.

Meanwhile, commercial arm BBC Worldwide has been told to concentrate its activities outside the U.K. so that 66% of its revenue comes from overseas markets by 2015.

“This is about focusing the whole organization on quality, and delivering services to the public which really make a difference and are different from what other broadcasters can do,” explains BBC director-general Mark Thompson.

But shouldn’t an organization that receives $5.4 billion of public money from the license fee paid by all homes with a TV already be focused on quality?

Politicians have reacted with scepticism to Thompson’s blueprint for the future, the results of a strategy review announced last summer and published March 2 under the title of “Putting Quality First.”

“Will the BBC be less expansionist? Will it think carefully about its impact on the U.K. independent sector,” says Jeremy Hunt, the shadow minister for culture who is likely to be responsible for the U.K.’s media policy should, as expected, the Conservative Party win the upcoming election.

“Above all, will the BBC spend license fee payers’ money on quality public service content that they want to see? Only real change will address these concerns,” Hunt adds.

James Murdoch, the News Corp. topper who still chairs U.K. pay box BSkyB, spoke for many last August when he accused the BBC of a “chilling” land grab and “throttling the news market.”

Ironically, it was the Murdoch-owned Times that leaked details of the “Putting Quality First” proposals on Feb. 25, forcing the BBC to bring forward the official announcement of the plans.

In an opinion column headlined “Big, bloated and cunning,” the Times castigated the BBC for failing to propose genuinely radical cuts, dismissing the plans as “a smokescreen.”

The Financial Times agreed that the proposed cuts did not go far enough. “The BBC has become too sprawling and too expensive,” it said, adding it was “not enough just to move money around inside the empire.”

Meanwhile, some 100,000 people, including Bowie, have joined an online lobby to save 6Music, an eclectic station designed to appeal to discerning pop fans aged 30 and upwards.

Bowie says, “For new artists to lose this station would be a great shame.”

For Thompson, the stakes are much higher. If he doesn’t get his way on these plans his own job may be on the line.