Mark Thompson looks ahead

Mark Thompson talks about pay, content and funding in this article published today in Ariel, the BBC staff magazine.

Mark Thompson looks ahead to a year when the size and shape of the post-switchover BBC will emerge; the Canvas internet TV partnership should forge ahead; some of question marks over BBC Worldwide may be removed; and a new government could be calling the shots on how a future BBC will be paid for.

Thompson has no doubt that the joint venture to bring catch-up TV into the living-room via broadband will be one of the biggest developments and challenges. "Canvas has the potential to utterly transform the way people think about broadcasting, the internet and universal take-up of broadband, with BBC iPlayer, and 4oD accessed by millions of households via their main TV set," he says.

Expected any day, Greg Dyke's heavily leaked creative review for the Conservatives will almost certainly call for the licence fee to be scrapped and replaced by funding from central taxation.

But Thompson would be surprised to see any great change this year. "[Culture Secretary] Ben Bradshaw has said he believes in the licence fee and [Shadow Culture Secretary] Jeremy Hunt that the Tories will abide by the multi-year settlement."

Meanwhile, BBC Worldwide - restricted to a tighter remit by the commercial review - may be heading for a record trading year, the Director-General says. And BBC World Service will talk to the government about grant-in-aid, amid immense pressure on public spending, ahead of its next settlement in 2011.

Strategic review
Thompson plans to publish his first proposals in February. He has already suggested that the BBC website might be trimmed back and that there will be fewer acquired programmes.

"For the public, the biggest question marks are around programme quality and distinctiveness," he notes. "So our focus is on big-impact, quality content that makes a difference. In 2010 that will include Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects and content around the Year of Science."

What about the onward march of "The website is an amazing media success, with 27million users a month, but it's grown like Topsy and some parts are less focused than others."

Is it inevitable that broadcast services will close? "There is not one service that's not there for a good reason, but in a world where there are lots of ways to get quality content, it's reasonable to ask whether there are other ways to access that content."

On Worldwide: "It's right to keep an open mind [on ownership] but continue to look at all the opportunities to develop BBC intellectual properties, not just simple privatisation."

And the proposed joint venture with Channel 4? "A partnership around secondary exploitation of great programmes makes good sense. I hope we can make progress. That will depend on Channel 4's new chief executive."

On the continuing pressure over executive pay and star salaries, Thompson - grilled on the subject by Today guest editor PD James - says "We've been tougher on bonuses and executive pay than any other public company or broadcaster."

"The public sector pay debate will continue... but we're not a county council. If you want someone to run BBC One or develop iPlayer, you need the very best people in the world. And they're paid much less here than they would be at ITV or Sky."

He adds: "The public has every right to know what we spend on stars' salaries as a whole, but there is no public interest served in revealing individual [details]."

"There were," says the Director-General, "dire predictions that no one would want to go to Salford [46 per cent have said yes]. We'll soon be recruiting new talent in the North West. Salford is looking good."

The commitment to base 50 per cent of network TV production out of the capital will be "one of way we add value": "You've only to go to Glasgow and see the critical mass that is developing along the Clyde."

IT systems
The Director-General is candid about the lessons to be learned from recent massive IT failures affecting phones and PCs.

"The frailty of our overall systems has been exposed. We have a legacy of IT systems which we've been trying to do more and more with, and we've now had a series of warnings. We're working hard to minimise the same thing happening again - thinking strategically to make sure we've got the infrastructure we need."

The World Cup and another F1 season will make it a great sporting year, Thompson says, and drama highlights will include Patrick Stewart's Macbeth at Easter.

"Radio 4 is on amazing form and, internationally, Persian TV will continue to have huge impact." At home, the general election promises to be "one of the most interesting in my time in broadcasting".

Given everything on the horizon, can the BBC feel confident at the start of the new decade? "There was an interesting moment in 2009, after James Murdoch's MacTaggart lecture. Yes, there was criticism of the BBC, but did people want to lose it? No, and that includes most politicians. There won't be any less noise around us in 2010, but yes, we have room to be confident."

Bridget Middleton is editing the About the BBC blog this week. Chris Jones is on holiday.


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