LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s state-backed public broadcaster the BBC signaled a retreat from some commercial operations to focus on core services, bowing to pressure from rivals and ahead of an election all about spending cuts.
The announcement on Tuesday follows an increasingly public spat between the group, some competitors and legislators who accuse the broadcaster of unnecessary expansion at a time when commercial firms are struggling in the downturn.
“It’s not about size or scope, it’s about what the BBC is for,” Director General Mark Thompson told an FT conference. “We can’t do everything.”
The BBC said it proposed to cut two niche but popular radio stations, slash the budget for its website and put a cap on popular programing including sports and foreign imports such as the American series “The Wire” and “Mad Men.”
“This is the first time that the BBC has withdrawn voluntarily from doing anything in their history,” broadcaster and media consultant Steve Hewlett told Reuters.
The corporation said it aimed to redirect around 600 million pounds ($893.8 million) into higher quality content such as its journalism, UK drama and comedy. Commercial rivals such as ITV and Channel 4 could then be left to bid for sports or U.S. drama.
But the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the move as a weak bid to take the sting out of a growing row. Other industry insiders pointed out that the BBC was not getting any smaller and would remain as competitive as ever.
“These plans smack of an attempt to appease commercial and political interests,” NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear said. “Hard-working staff shouldn’t be used as a political football.
The move also comes as newspaper firms move to charge online readers, a change which is made more difficult by the amount of free content the BBC makes available online.
Politicians from all parties have said the BBC needs to be reined in.
The corporation, which is renowned for its news coverage and comedy programs such as The Office, receives a guaranteed 3.6 billion pounds income a year from the license fee, a tax paid by all television-owning households.
James Murdoch, seen as the heir to his father Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s media empire, has described the broadcaster’s scale and intention as “chilling.”
Many analysts agree that the BBC has grown too large in recent years, but the majority of BBC services are hugely popular and the plan to close its niche BBC 6 Music station has sparked uproar among fans and musicians.
Hewlett said he expected the new strategy to appease politicians for now, and said it could also have an unintended consequence in showing politicians the kind of backlash they should expect if they insist on the corporation becoming any smaller.
Hewlett said he also thought the broadcaster would make these changes so it can remain active in the programing-on-demand market which is growing in importance.
Britain’s media minister Ben Bradshaw, who had previously criticized the size of the BBC, said he welcomed the new thinking and said it was now important for the public’s voice to be heard.
The proposals will now be subject to a 12-week consultation.
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Andrew Callus and David Cowell