Film unit weathers BBC storm

Budget grows despite cuts; unions eye pubcaster biz plan

The BBC on Thursday confirmed hefty job losses and budget cuts straddling the entire organization, while BBC Films — the U.K. pubcaster's filmmaking arm — received a welcome fillip for its own budgetary ambitions.

While BBC director general Mark Thompson announced his anticipated job cuts, which will see the loss of "approximately 2,500 posts" across the organization and a 10% cut in original programming, BBC Films learned that its budget will increase by £2 million ($4 million) to £12 million ($24 million) annually for the next six years.

The filmmaking arm also scored an extra £1 million ($2 million) to be "ring-fenced and protected" to help fuel the acquisition of British films for the pubcaster's myriad outlets.

The anticipated budget increase at BBC Films falls short of the original pre-license fee agreement figure bandied about 18 months ago by the BBC. That early speculation had said the BBC Films annual budget would likely rise to £15 million ($30 million).

But given the cuts to other departments and the BBC's output, a BBC spokesperson claimed that the 20% budget increase for filmmaking shows that "investing in film has remained a priority" for the broadcaster.

Despite the good news for BBC Films, which is expected to be announced officially today, the BBC as a whole is being buffeted by a maelstrom of programming budget cuts and job losses.

And the specter of strike action is looming large over the grand old dame of broadcasting, with the unions carefully examining Thompson's official statement on the changes to his organization and his six-year plan.

Unions are preparing to ballot staffers on the proposed cuts once the nitty-gritty of the redundancy plans have been pored over.

"Overall, we estimate that the BBC will make approximately 1,800 redundancies by the end of the period," Thompson said.

He said the BBC's news and factual departments will be hardest hit by streamlining measures, which include the creation of a "new multimedia newsroom." About 500 jobs are expected to go as a result of the changes.

BBC Vision, which encompasses the pubcaster's channels, will feel the ax falling on about 700 jobs, with more than half of those from factual, which is being rejigged into groups including science, arts, history and documentaries.

Thompson told the staff: "Media is transforming. Audiences are transforming. It would be easy to say that the sheer pace of this revolution is too fast for the BBC."

He said that "to do what other media players are doing — integrating newsrooms, mixing media, exploiting the same content aggressively across different platforms — is just too radical …"

But he also added: "I've devoted almost my whole working life to the BBC, much of that not as a suit but as a rank-and-file programmaker. I love the BBC and what it stands for. I care too much to see it drift steadily into irrelevance."

The changes also mean the BBC has dropped plans for a range of earlier proposals for new activities, amounting to £1.5 billion ($3 billion), including four full new local radio stations.

Thompson said the plans will set the BBC up for the fast-changing digital age.

Despite his words of contrition over the cuts, Thompson faces a major revolt from the organization's stars, including veteran newsman and broadcaster John Humphreys who has claimed the BBC is stifling dissent among employees over the cuts.

Summarizing the plans, Thompson told the staff that "there will be a smaller BBC but one that packs a bigger punch."
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