Edinburgh TV Fest: Panel Weighs Upside, Challenges for New BBC Boss

BBC Keeps Olympics Through 2020

A week ahead of the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics, the BBC has signed a deal to ensure it will remain the exclusive U.K. Olympic broadcaster through 2020 at least. The agreement signed with the International Olympic Committee includes U.K. rights across all media platforms, including online and mobile.

Elisabeth Murdoch is among those supporting the public broadcaster's license fee, but many see the need for new revenue streams and cost cuts.

EDINBURGH -- The BBC continues to face big financial challenges, but incoming director general George Entwistle has an opportunity to cut costs, build new revenue streams and strengthen the public broadcaster's position in the U.K. media industry, a panel of industry experts said here Thursday.

The U.K. assets of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and the Daily Mail tabloid, the BBC's biggest critics over the years, are "damaged goods" following the Leveson Inquiry into media standards that was launched in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, argued former BBC boss Greg Dyke.

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"This is a great moment for the BBC," he said during the session at the  MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival. "The Olympics summed up what the BBC is about...There is a wonderful opportunity for the BBC to restate what it's about over the next few years."

He suggested that the hacking scandal would turn out to be "a massive turning point in the influence newspaper groups have on our society."

Lorraine Heggessey, executive chairwoman of Boom Pictures, during the panel discussion defended the BBC license fee as a key funding source for the BBC, arguing it "is still the most efficient way."

She urged Entwistle to look at new revenue opportunities though. "They could start to charge for the [digital video player] iPlayer after a seven day window," she said.

In her festival keynote speech Thursday evening, Elisabeth Murdoch, daughter of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch and chairman of the conglomerate's TV production firm Shine, also defended the BBC license fee.

"It's what mandates its unique purpose it continues to act as a strategic catalyst to the creative industries of this great country," she said. "Though, I do imagine that George Entwistle's biggest challenge may be to demonstrate how efficiently that funding is being spent on actual content on behalf of the license fee payers."

Entwistle starts his new role on Sept. 17.

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Back at the panel discussion, some wondered though whether the license fee revenue will be enough to fund the BBC. Dyke said that the unbundling of the taxpayer-financed BBC license fee from the inflation rate, which happened for the first time under outgoing director general Mark Thompson, "could be a problem for the BBC."

In several years, the BBC could end up with 20 percent to 30 percent less money to spend, he said. The BBC "should say the cuts are too big for the value it provides," he suggested. "It needs more fans out there fighting for it -- as long as it is as efficient as it can."

Asked to rate Thompson's performance, Dyke said: "He has done a good job."

Other panelists echoed that notion. In-house production spending is one area that several cited as a place where Entwistle could cut costs though.

Andy Harries, CEO of TV producer Left Bank Pictures, which Sony is set to acquire, said in-house production could use a rethink. "It's part of an old era," he said.

Heggessey said Entwistle could look for overhead reductions, the streamlining of function and, echoing the others, reducing in-house production as "the independent sector has proven itself more than capable."

The BBC in-house commissioning department has too many people who must attend too many meetings and are not empowered to make decisions, she argued. "Freeing people up to do their jobs is really important, because then you wouldn't need that many," she said. Her solution: "Fewer people, but really, really good people."

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Dyke also criticized the current set-up as a "convoluted system" that could be improved by devolving decision-making to producers or divisions. "I wish I had changed it when I was there," he added.
A BBC commissioning executive in the  audience later defended his department and said he would like Entwistle to put the "focus back on creativity." After all, developing BBC shows in-house can sometimes seem like an "inconvenient obstacle," he said.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai