MEDIA FORUM: Should Greg Dyke's BBC now be brought to heel? Has the BBC gone too far with its drastic decision to compete with ITV's News at Ten? And should the Government step in, especially if it takes account of the wider picture?

OK, maybe it was a stupid question. 'Could this really be the end of the News at Ten saga?' we asked a couple of weeks back. Well, now we know the answer. No. Definitely not. Absolutely not. In fact, where this one's concerned, we've probably only seen the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

OK, maybe it was a stupid question. 'Could this really be the end of the News at Ten saga?' we asked a couple of weeks back. Well, now we know the answer. No. Definitely not. Absolutely not. In fact, where this one's concerned, we've probably only seen the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.

As far as advertisers are concerned, this is by far the least palatable of the story's many chapters to date. When ITV and the Independent Television Commission reached their compromise, bringing back News at Ten three days a week, no-one expected the BBC to crash on-stage in quite the spectacular fashion that it did last week. Although the BBC had signalled its interest in rescheduling the Nine O'Clock News, it had done so because (we all assumed) it wanted to colonise the slot it believed ITV had vacated.

No-one really expected it would seek a head-to-head clash with the network.

Well, now we know different. The BBC continues to protest to the contrary, but this seems a clear case of cynical opportunism - and there's plenty of circumstantial evidence that the decision was taken on the spur of the moment. The move clearly contravenes the BBC's supposed duty to provide not only a public service schedule but one that guarantees viewer choice.

But perhaps the whole episode serves merely to remind everyone, especially those in the commercial media, that there is no BBC remit. It can do what it likes as long as its board of governors approves.

The Government clearly doesn't approve, and maybe the BBC chairman, Christopher Bland, will come to regret giving the culture secretary, Chris Smith, the metaphorical finger last week, describing him witheringly as 'a licence fee-payer ... entitled to his point of view' As entitled to his point of view, he might have put it, as any other punter or saloon-bar commentator.

Hardly the wisest of words given that there's a communications industry White Paper in the offing - and, indeed, according to reports last week, government sources are letting it be known that, in approving the News at Ten schedule proposal, the BBC governors have effectively signed their death warrant.

That particular execution could come too late for some in the media market.

Just how worried should we be about this latest evidence of escalating BBC aggression?

Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, says that, with the benefit of hindsight, we shouldn't be surprised. He says: 'Any organisation that appoints Greg Dyke is going to become much more commercially astute. I don't think you'd confuse him with a cerebral scheduler with the intellectual interests of the audience a prime consideration. His brand of scheduling and programming has been enormously successful in the commercial world. The realistic view is that the BBC has been aggressively commercial for years. It's just that in the past it hasn't been very successful at it. It is in the business of competing in any way it knows how and it is made easier by the fact that there is no proper regulation of the BBC.'

In his role as head of the IPA's media policy group, Marshall has been active in lobbying for a new regulatory framework that will put the BBC on a level playing-field with its commercial rivals. Other trade bodies such as ISBA continue to lobby for the same cause. But there appears to be a growing sense of pessimism that the advertiser just isn't being listened to.

If this is the case, that would be worrying, especially with the White Paper in mind. On the other hand, the BBC might just have over-reached itself - especially if its aggression in the TV market is echoed in other sectors.

Paul Brown, the chief executive of the Commercial Radio Companies Association, says that the BBC continues to be active in the radio sector - but that, in this case, it's a double-edged sword. He explains: 'The BBC recently announced that it is proceeding with two national digital stations previously announced and that it now plans to introduce three others. Those commercial companies investing in digital will probably welcome the stimulus this will give to digital, but for those who are not in digital, it represents more activities in which the BBC is involved and that will take audiences away from them. The BBC's 50 per cent share of listening is largely derived from national services, so it is a matter of intense interest that the BBC is doubling its proposed number of national services.'

But for the magazine market there are no such caveats. As in TV, the BBC is as aggressive as it's ever been. Duncan Edwards, the deputy managing director of the National Magazine Company, says: 'The launch of Eve was advertised on both BBC1 and BBC2. For the launch of Star, its new teenage magazine, the BBC has created a 20-minute tie-in section in Live and Kicking on Saturday mornings. It's been active in consumer exhibitions. It is clearly stretching the boundaries of commercialism further than it ever has in the past. And who can blame it? Who's to stop it? It will keep doing it until someone comes along and tells it that this is not what the BBC was supposed to be about. It is now a fully fledged commercial media operation supported by the taxpayer.'

Hugo Drayton, the managing director of Hollinger Telegraph New Media, is becoming similarly frustrated at the ambiguous nature of the BBC's presence in the online market: 'There has been all sorts of talk about Beeb.com (the BBC's commercial online operation) being floated off on its own but that is completely untenable because the BBC cross-promotes in a ridiculous way. It's not unreasonable for a public service broadcaster to have a presence on the web, but it now seems to be trying to be all things to all men. The British Internet Publishers Alliance presented its concerns to (Chris) Smith and we thought that he understood. But when it came to taking a decision, Smith - as so often happens - walked away from it.

'The technology races so far ahead of any legislation that unless the Government and the BBC can agree a stance, the Government is going to be tripped up yet again. As a viewer, I'm for the BBC, but we are very concerned about the potential damage it can do to the UK's burgeoning, world-class market in online communications. You can't blame a big organisation such as BT, for example, for stretching its licence limits as far as it can within the law, but the BBC is a lot different because it's funded by all of us.'



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