Media Lifeline: BBC Worldwide

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 04 December 2009 12:00AM

The BBC's commercial arm has drawn criticism for having its fingers in too many pies.

July 2004: BBC Worldwide had been building its media empire steadily across the 90s, notably through the expansion of its magazine portfolio and its UK TV channels - but, in 2004, there's a real departure when its DVD distribution arm, BBC Video, forms a joint venture with its Woolworths-owned counterpart VCI to create 2entertain. The deal is brokered by the chief executive of BBC Worldwide, Rupert Gavin.

October 2007: Fearing political turbulence in the run-up to Charter renewal, BBC Worldwide had been selling off non-core assets, but with the new Charter in the bag, the division, under John Smith, ruffles feathers by paying £89 million for a controlling interest in Lonely Planet.

November 2008: And the potential riskiness of the BBC Worldwide strategy, underwritten as it is by a dubious cocktail of borrowed and public money, is thrown into sharp relief when Woolworths goes into administration. There is speculation that 2entertain will be sucked into the mess - but it's deemed to be a viable asset and keeps trading. (Legal arguments surrounding ownership are still ongoing, however.)

June 2009: Thanks to some judicious BBC lobbying, the Government-sponsored Digital Britain report steers away from recommending that BBC Worldwide should rescue the ailing Channel 4, much to the chagrin of the latter's chief executive, Andy Duncan.

November 2009: All of which had prompted the corporation's governing body, the BBC Trust, to review BBC Worldwide's activities and remit. The conclusion is that its activities are to be reined in. It will not be floated as a separate company - and it will be forbidden in the future from indulging in mergers or acquisitions, unless the circumstances are "exceptional". The ruling, however, is not retrospective - it will be allowed to keep Lonely Planet.

Fast forward ...

June 2010: Under its new chief executive, Duncan, BBC Worldwide argues that just such an exceptional circumstance has arisen, when it is invited to step in to save the onand offline operations of Guardian News & Media. The Tory government is outraged and threatens to bring forward legislation to break up both the BBC and BBC Worldwide, but finds public support building for the BBC's role in saving a "heritage media asset".

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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