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LONDON – A former broadcast journalism trainee with the BBC, George Entwistle‘s rise to the top at the broadcaster, hired as the 15th director general at the U.K. public broadcaster, signals confidence that a news man can steer the company in the digital age in the country’s highest-profile TV industry job.
The 49-year-old Entwistle joined the BBC in 1989 and was most recently director of BBC Vision, a position he has held since 2011, charged with commissioning, producing and broadcasting across BBC television and the BBC’s extensive web offering.
The executive was in the firing line recently over the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee pageant, much criticized by the media and viewers alike for being too heavy on soft news and not providing enough information. Entwistle chaired the committee coordinating the event, but went on holiday after the jubilee, dodging the need to directly respond to criticism.
Prior to the heavyweight job with BBC Vision, Entwistle enjoyed the title of controller of knowledge commissioning, which saw him in charge of factual programming across a host of subjects including arts, music, history, natural history, business, science, religion and consumer journalism.
His BBC resume also boasts high-profile news shows, including flagship news magazine Panorama, during his stint as head of current affairs and Newsnight, of which he was the editor during a stint with the show from 1994 to 1999.
His early days with Panorama included the program’s coverage of the first Gulf War, the fall of prime minister Margaret Thatcher and an investigation into how the Tiananmen Square protest leaders were taken out of China.
His resume also boasts stints as producer for On The Record.
In the immediate aftermath of Entwistle’s appointment to lead the BBC, the U.K. mainstream press all described the executive as a “safe pair of hands” with reports also suggesting he emerged as BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten‘s favorite candidate. Insiders say he impressed Patten with his future plans, which he has yet to outline.
Asked about possible ripple effects that Entwistle’s appointment may have on other TV companies in the U.K., Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Claudio Aspesi said: “Of course, the BBC is a major force in U.K. TV. Someone who knows commissioning and production as well as he does may prove to be a tough competitor.”
But Peel Hunt analyst Patrick Yau argued: “I don’t think this appointment will have much impact on any of the listed broadcasters I follow…I would not expect major changes to the organization’s approach over the medium term.”
Asked about the new BBC boss’ biggest challenge, he said: “Whether he has the ability to deal with the inevitable politics that surround the BBC and can withstand the public scrutiny that goes with the role is difficult to say – time will tell.”
Nick Thomas, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, said Entwistle’s appointment “looks like a safe appointment on the face of it.” After all, his resume “follows the classic route to the top – a distinguished career in news and current affairs followed by a stint in charge of BBC Vision.”
Entwistle has a reputation for being good with people, Thomas said, before adding: “But his challenge is a profound one: Will he be able to envision and secure a long-term future for the BBC as the leading provider of content in Western Europe?”
One concern is his lack of a resume in digital media. “The fears are that he is not enough of a digital bod to understand that for millions of its consumers, the BBC is now as much a provider of digital content as a broadcaster,” Thomas said.
And while other candidates had more political experience, some have argued that Entwistle may have simply been the candidate of the political establishment.
“The director general’s job now seems to be more political than ever,” Thomas said. “It’s all about managing up, working effectively (and forcefully) with Whitehall to fight the BBC’s corner. Other candidates – such as Ofcom boss Ed Richards and BBC COO Caroline Thomson – seemed to have more experience in those circles. While Entwistle is more likely to relate to BBC staff, is it possible he is seen as a more pliable director general for the current government who were said to prefer him as a candidate. He may need to win a few battles to assure critics he’s noone’s patsy.”
As director general, Entwistle is the chief executive officer of the BBC and its editor-in-chief. He will also be charged with chairing the BBC’s executive board and is the editorial, operational and creative leader of the BBC, with responsibility for its global workforce and the corporation’s services across television, radio and online.
Entwistle began his career as a writer and magazine editor.
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