MEDIA: Forum - Will BBC's ills help commercial sector?

Can commercial broadcasters capitalise on the troubles at the BBC in the short and long term?

Greg Dyke was hardly the most popular figure in commercial media circles, but you almost certainly have to concede his effectiveness in turning the BBC into the modern model of an aggressive media conglomerate.

The BBC director-general, who resigned last Thursday, scheduled astutely, unashamedly chased ratings and generally made life miserable for the BBC's commercial rivals, especially ITV.

He also presided over an unprecedented expansion of BBC services as the corporation staked out a chunk of territory in the digital domain - TV channels such as BBC3 and BBC4, DAB radio stations and a more commanding web presence.

Sentiment aside, his departure should be great news for the commercial sector. In the immediate future, the likes of ITV will hope to take advantage of widespread management disarray at the corporation. Longer term, the commercial sector will surely now get what it has been demanding for a decade - an end to BBC self-regulation. The BBC's Charter is to be renewed in two years' time and in the wake of last week's events, the Charter debate has already been hotting up.

This week, the IPA released its response to Ofcom's consultation on Public Service Broadcasting, arguing that the BBC is allowed too much freedom in its interpretation of PSB and that its scheduling is in direct competition with the commercial sector.

In this context, Jim Marshall, the chairman of the IPA's Media Futures Group, agrees that commercial TV channels in particular can expect to prosper over the short term. He says: "Any organisation that is in such management turmoil gives opportunities to the competition. Nor is the timing good as regards BBC performance against ITV because the network is emerging from the merger and looks a far stronger prospect than it did."

Over the longer term, however, Marshall cautions against unrealistic expectations. "Politicians don't like to antagonise the BBC in the run-up to an election. And the BBC won't lose sleep over the opinions of advertisers and agencies. On the other hand, this time around the ripple effect could be more significant than they can foresee," he says.

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at ISBA, says that the position of advertisers has been consistent and openly stated.

"I think we will again see calls for more effective governance of the BBC. We believe that this would best be achieved through Ofcom," he says.

Mick Desmond, the chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, tends to agree.

He says: "It is not to our disadvantage if a rival of the BBC's stature is in disarray. We've spent a year putting the (ITV) merger together and during that time we've been very keen to keep our eye on the ball, which we succeeded in doing. Now that we have one management team we can quite dramatically increase our focus."

But he adds: "As we look forward, even as a competitor, we believe it's important to have a strong BBC. As the Charter renewal process goes forward, ITV's position is as it has always been -that the BBC should be regulated by Ofcom and that Ofcom should be very clear about what a strong BBC should be."

One man who's seen it all before is John Perriss, the worldwide chief executive of ZenithOptimedia. In the late 80s and early 90s, he was on the IPA media policy group that formulated the industry's response to a range of proposals on the BBC's future - some of which went as far as proposing that it be forced to take advertising.

He tends to side with those who argue that the BBC's fate is by no means a foregone conclusion: "The mantra back then was about extending choice and doing things that the commercial sector couldn't be expected to do.

The BBC then proceeded to ignore that and produce 'me-too' commercial programmes. And the galling thing was that often it did them better.

"If Labour were now to embark on a revenge mission against the BBC, that might help restrict the BBC to a narrower remit and could even diminish its power as a popular entity. But 2006 (Charter renewal date) is a long way away and it will be interesting to see what influence the public in general has on this. The general feeling may be that Hutton is not entirely plausible and if it has public sympathy on its side, the BBC may start to feel a lot more confident."

So, there exists a general optimism that the commercial sector can make capital out of the BBC's disarray balanced with a recognition of the possibility that with public support on its side the corporation might weather the next Charter renewal fairly unscathed.

"The fact is that the BBC's commercial behaviour is and always has been contrary to its public service remit. It operates entirely to its own agenda and there is an arrogance there that continues to mock the notion of any form of accountability."

JIM MARSHALL chairman, IPA Media Futures Group

"The two organisations most skilled at wriggling off hooks are the Government and the BBC. When the BBC and its future is the only item on the slab, then I think we'll see it performing brilliantly in the political arena."

BOB WOOTTON director of media and advertising affairs, ISBA

"Regulation by Ofcom is a far likelier outcome now. In the past, we were not alone in having real concerns about the BBC in terms of its competitive scheduling and buying of programmes. We want a well-funded BBC but it must be about providing a point of difference."

MICK DESMOND chief executive, ITV Broadcasting

"If the Government can successfully take on an institution like the BBC and win, newspapers may feel that they might be next. So if we see an unlikely coalition between the BBC and the press, then the BBC just about has a chance of getting off the hook."

JOHN PERRISS worldwide chief executive, ZenithOptimedia.

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