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New BBC Team Faces Challenging Future

Pubcaster puts behind scandal and creates blueprint for global business

Think of the BBC and what springs to mind?

If you’re an average New Yorker, according to the new head of BBC Worldwide, Tim Davie, you associate the BBC with high quality news coverage and a program or two like “Doctor Who.”

But in the U.K., word association games involving the BBC could trigger concern over child sex abuse and cover-up, and a top-heavy organization in need of reform.

That, admittedly, is a harsh verdict, but as the BBC comes to terms with the fallout from the Jimmy Savile child sex-abuse affair, and a more recent scandal involving the loss of $160 million of U.K. license fee money on an abortive technology project, it’s obvious the new regime at the BBC faces a formidable set of challenges.

Says British media commentator, Raymond Snoddy: “It is quite clear that the new director-general Tony Hall needs to change the BBC’s management culture … but perhaps the greatest challenge is the most tangible. He needs to squeeze more creativity out of a sometimes moribund and dysfunctional organization. The difficulty for Hall is that he needs to show the BBC can make the best TV in the world while at the same time taking out yet more costs.”

Hall, the former head of Blighty’s Royal Opera House, took over as the BBC’s director general in March.

Ninety days later, his team is virtually all in place.

His most significant hire is James Purnell, a former media minister in Tony Blair’s administration.

Purnell has a new and wide-ranging role as director of strategy and digital. The job embraces BBC policymaking, future media and communications, including marketing and audience research.

Purnell was the BBC’s head of corporate planning under John Birt, the director general who, two decades ago, introduced radical changes designed to modernize the Beeb. There is speculation that Purnell may encourage Hall to finish the job that Birt started by introducing a more free market style to the pubcaster.

Another key outsider is James Harding, the former editor of the Times and ex-Financial Times journalist, brought in as director of news.

It’s a massive role and demands careful handling following what was identified as an organization laden with “rigid management chains” by an internal probe set up following the exposure of the Savile scandal, and journalistic incompetence on flagship U.K. public affairs show Newsnight, which had alleged incorrectly that a British peer was guilty of sex crimes.

Both appointments have been welcomed by outsiders.

James Purnell is a very smart operator who completely understands broadcasting and the wider U.K. media industry,” says John McVay, CEO of producers’ lobby group Pact. “It is good to get some new blood into the BBC.”

Harding, a newspaper man through and through, may also be what the doctor ordered.

Fluent in several languages, including Mandarin, he is credited with having an international mindset likely to help the BBC as it tries to raise its game globally.

And then there is Worldwide head Davie, who also has added responsibilities for the Beeb’s global activities beyond Worldwide. It was Davie, a Pepsi marketing vet who joined the BBC in 2005, who experienced the full force of the crisis that gripped the network last November when he was handed the job of acting director general.

The previous director general, George Entwistle, lasted just 54 days in the job. He was forced to resign when his leadership skills were found wanting.

“Getting a grip in the first 48 hours was the biggest challenge,” Davie recalls. “Once you’re through that, you earn a pause in which you can start to rebuild the brand.”

Does Davie feel the various scandals have harmed the BBC’s international reputation?

“It would be complacent of us to assume that no reputational damage was done,” he replies. “However, there are no obvious signs that beyond the U.K. either trust in the BBC or demand for BBC products has been affected. Trust is earned over time and we never take it for granted. But I don’t see any material damage to Worldwide’s business.”

As Davie finalizes his plans for the commercial arm, he is convinced that, despite the BBC’s relatively small size in the U.S., a lot more can be done to leverage its assets in the world’s most lucrative media market.

“We have scale outside the U.S., but in the U.S. itself the BBC is a medium-sized player in a land of big beasts,” he says.

There are, however, indications this could change.

BBC Worldwide Prods. is growing its slate in the U.S. thanks to an impressive portfolio of both scripted and unscripted shows, including “Da Vinci’s Demons” on Starz, plus a remake of hit Britcom “Gavin & Stacey,” reformatted as “Us & Them” for Fox. Its hit format “Dancing With the Stars” recently ended its 16th season on ABC.

And in the digital world, Worldwide is punching above its weight Stateside, claims Davie.

“There’s a lot of good social media action around Doctor Who, not surprisingly, and the BBC America drama Copper,” says Davie. He thinks it is time that all those involved in making drama — producer, actors, showrunners and writers — begin to think more globally.

Davie himself is looking at the whole BBC Worldwide drama slate in terms of its global potential.

He maintains that even successful brands such as Doctor Who and Top Gear can perform still better.

As for Worldwide’s channel business, expect a new emphasis on BBC Earth and its associated natural history content.

However, unless the Beeb is at the top of the game in Blighty, it is hard to see how it can build its overseas businesses.

“The two big issues for the BBC are money and morale,” says Steven Barnett, professor of communications at London’s U. of Westminster.

Pact’s McVay, puts it like this: “Tony Hall’s biggest challenge is how he ensures that most of the money ends up onscreen (the license fee raises £3.68 billion — $5.77 billion — annually) backing fantastic content, and is not spent on institutional costs like salaries, pensions and property.”

Who could disagree?

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