Ofcom chief eyes BBC fee for ITV services

License fee brings in more than $5 bil annually

LONDON -- Ed Richards, chief executive at media watchdog Ofcom, said Tuesday that $88 million-$147 million of the BBC license fee should be used to fund the ailing local news services currently run by ITV.

His comments come as BBC bosses fall under increasing pressure to come up with reasons not to share the BBC license fee -- an annual income of more than £3.5 billion ($5 billion) -- with Britain's hard-hit commercial public service channels including Channel 4 and ITV.

In a speech at a Culture Department conference on local media, Richards said the cash would be used to fund an alternative to ITV regional news beyond 2012, when the commercial broadcaster has been released from its local news provision requirements.

Richards said that the partnership proposals recently put forward by the BBC will not meet the investment needed to supply a regional news service.

"The BBC's partnership proposals are very welcome, but on their own will not deliver a viable news service on ITV, nor will they address the wider challenges faced by regional and local news and journalism," he said at the seminar. "The cost savings they deliver, especially early on, are relatively modest. And in television, they are dependent on ITV changing the scheduling of its services."

Richards said the BBC's license fee surplus is the "strongest candidate" for funding any potential news consortia as direct support from the cash-strapped government is unlikely.

"I am primarily talking about the recurring money that will be surplus to the BBC's programs and services budget after switchover if the license fee is maintained at its present level in real terms," he said.

The BBC did not directly comment on the speech, but BBC Trust chairman Michael Lyons is scheduled to give a speech next month about how the BBC will protect its relationship with the license fee payer.