Pressure for outsourcing may dilute BBC's position

MUMBAI: BBC is, by far, the biggest programme maker in Britain what with almost 20,000 people employed in production-related jobs. But its position as the dominant force in British television production is under great pressure. As a result, it would not be surprising to see its position getting diluted.

Critics say it is too big. Independent producers have long believed that the size of the BBC's production division puts them at a disadvantage. It is because the commissioning executives are under pressure to keep in-house staff occupied, despite a legal obligation on the corporation to source a certain number of shows from outside.

According to media reports, relations between the BBC and the "indies", as the independent producers are known, deteriorated under the previous director-general, Greg Dyke, who said it was not his job to make them rich. Some of the independent producers - including ex-BBC staff such as Big Brother guru Peter Bazalgette - actually became millionaires.

Independent productions for the BBC include: Spooks (Kudos); Have I Got News for You (Hat Trick); Friday Night with Jonathan Ross (Open Mike); and Restoration and Fame Academy (Endemol).

Fences have been mended between the corporation and the indies with a deal on new terms of trade, and the indies are now arguing for the BBC to spend much more externally, commissioning shows on merit , not through the need to keep BBC employees in jobs.

At the moment, the BBC is obliged to commission 25 per cent of its programmes from outside, although certain genres, such as news, are exempt. The BBC said last week it had commissioned more than 2,300 hours from independents in 2003-04.

Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television was reported as saying, "I am committed to staying well above the quota in this current year and in the years to come."

Pact, the trade body for more than 600 indies, wants the BBC's in-house productions limited to 50 per cent of output, with 25 per cent reserved for indies and the rest open to all. This would favour producers outside the BBC, who do not qualify in law as indies, such as Granada, the programme-making arm of ITV. Pact also wants the quotas measured by programme cost, as well as length.

Such a shift in power would inevitably lead to significant job losses at the BBC, although many of these people would probably set up their stall in the expanding indie sector. There are fears in the BBC of a bloodbath; independent producers say it would be more akin to a blood transfusion.

One of the first acts of Mark Thompson, when he took up his post as director general in June, was to commission a review of the BBC's commissioning and production structure. Although he was at pains to say he had an "open mind", few believe he would have ordered the review had he believed the system was sound.

Thompson hinted in a speech on his first day that the coming months would bring significant changes to the BBC's structure. "A BBC, which is big in terms of services is essential. But how deep should the BBC be? How big, in other words, in terms of vertical integration, of departments, in-house operations and commercial subsidiaries? ... We face a much tougher financial environment going forward - and some testing questions about our size and shape as an organisation."

Pact's chief executive John McVay, said that he is arguing for a "level-playing field" and for programmes to be commissioned on merit, regardless of who made them. "The only way the BBC is going to survive in future is by making the best programmes," he said.

The BBC's review is likely to be completed this autumn, before the green paper on the renewal of its royal charter. ent.

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