BBC braces for the unknown

No front-runner has emerged as execs vie to lead pubcaster

LONDON — As the race to become the BBC’s next leader intensifies, no single contender has emerged as the likely candidate to take on what remains the most demanding role in U.K. media.

“It is a very unusual situation, because there is no obvious shoo-in for director-general,” says media commentator Raymond Snoddy. “For once, nobody knows who is going to get the job.”

It’s a scenario that’s starkly different from the way things were eight years ago, when BBC vet Mark Thompson landed the gig as the clear front-runner. But the Beeb itself has changed.

The ongoing worldwide economic crisis has caused the company to bleed money and jobs, even as it pushes ahead as a multiplatform broadcaster with an enviable track record of successfully backing such digital initiatives as Freeview and the iPlayer.

In fact, coin is so tight that the new director-general is likely to be paid a modest £450,000 ($705,510) a year, compared with the $1.3 million that Thompson earned. The comparatively meager pay package effectively rules out higher-paid outside potential candidates like ABC topper Paul Lee, who launched BBC America, and ex-BBC high-flyer Michael Jackson, also working in the U.S. as prexy of Barry Diller’s Internet media concern IAC (InterActiveCorp).

That’s not to say there are no names being bandied about for the post. From within the BBC, the three leading candidates are head of news Helen Boaden, head of vision George Entwistle and chief operating officer Caroline Thomson. While it would be a coup for BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten, who’s responsible for hiring Thompson’s successor, to appoint a woman DG for the first time, many insiders suggest Entwistle has the inside track among the three.

“The chairman obviously likes George,” says a senior BBC executive. “They are both intellectuals. But because George is relatively inexperienced (he was appointed head of vision last April) there is a risk that he would end up being (seen as) Patten’s boy.”

Outside the company, the favorite to take over from Thompson is Ed Richards, a former BBC strategy head who’s currently the CEO of U.K. media regulator Ofcom. Richards lacks creative experience, but that may not be a problem in the current environment. For the first time, the job spec of director-general prizes experience in international operations over that in programming or journalism.

Given the increasing importance of commercial arm BBC Worldwide to the company, it is easy to understand the new focus. The BBC is charged with cutting 20% of its budget by 2015, due to a licence-fee freeze, even as it takes on additional responsibilities like running the World Service news operation and the rollout of local TV in the U.K.

In some quarters, there is even a suggestion that the job spec was written with Richards, a former aide to ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, in mind. Patten, who served ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the last governor of Hong Kong, is likely to favor someone who will not be reluctant to do his bidding on occasion.

Still, there is astonishment that the preferred candidate could be someone lacking editorial experience. Snoddy speaks for many in the U.K. broadcasting community when he says that considering a BBC director general without a background in journalism or production is “insane.”

“The reality is that almost all DGs have been either internal people or someone who has worked there recently, and who have a tried-and-tested background in program making,” he says.

The BBC Trust’s Patten enjoys a reputation as something of a mischief-maker. And at 68 years old, he is unlikely to have another chance to make such a big impact on the cultural life of the U.K. and the wider world. So it is also possible that he might appoint a dark-horse candidate such as Mark Scott, managing director of Oz’s ABC web, or skip a generation among BBC hierarchs to tap Danny Cohen, the precociously talented controller of BBC1, and a highly articulate defender of the Beeb’s public service mission.

In any event, Thompson will bow out by the fall, after the BBC’s domestic coverage of the London Olympics. Interviews for his successor are due to be held this month. An appointment is expected to be announced in early July.

In this wide-open race, expect the unexpected.