Media Forum: Is BBC sponsorship deal fair?

Should the BBC avoid censure for its commercial plans?

You can just about imagine the outbreak of hilarity in Mark Thompson's office when Michael Grade's letter arrived the other day. Grade, the executive chairman of ITV, had written to Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, to formally complain about the fact that the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year show had been sponsored by the soft drinks brand Robinsons.

The Robinsons logo was featured liberally throughout the show and the brand was given generous onscreen mentions by the show's presenters Gary Lineker and Sue Barker. Even Tim Henman, the face of much of Robinsons' recent commercial activity, was there to present one of the awards.

It was a potent little cocktail of commercial activity - so much so, that if ITV had attempted it, the network could have been hit by a substantial fine courtesy of its regulator, Ofcom.

Grade's letter to Thompson (and a formal complaint has been made to the BBC Trust and to the corporation's editorial complaints unit) argues that the Robinsons deal (reportedly worth £200,000 over two years) amounts to the BBC taking advertising by the back door.

The likelihood, of course, is that the BBC will treat Grade's protest with something less than contempt. The BBC answers only to itself - and is currently in an unashamedly aggressive commercial mood.

Recent initiatives have seen the arrival of advertising on sites accessed by a non-UK web audience and the revival of a TV programme spin-off magazine, Match of the Day. And, sticking to a sporting theme, the corporation is, for instance, currently gearing up to bid for a package of rights to the Uefa Champions League football - one of the most commercially developed events in the history of sport, complete with a sophisticated broadcast sponsorship line-up.

It will be interesting to see how that is accommodated. But, by then, we may have become inured to the idea of sponsorship attached to BBC programming.

Let's hope not, Oliver Cleaver, Kimberly-Clark's media director, responds. He adds: "ITV is absolutely right to be hopping-mad about this. Broadcasting an event such as the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON is one thing, getting a sponsor for one of your own programmes is clearly another. It might as well go out and find a sponsor for EastEnders. If Robinsons wants to pursue commercial television opportunities, that's where it should be - on commercial television."

On the other hand, Simon Thompson, the chief marketing officer of lastminute.com, argues, one benefit of the Robinsons sponsorship was that a larger venue could be used - and more members of the public could attend. However, he warns: "The BBC needs to take care. The new leaders at ITV understand the BBC's workings and will jump on any error with glee."

That's as maybe, George Michaelides, a founder of Michaelides & Bednash, responds - but you can hardly blame the corporation for attempting to push commercial boundaries. He explains: "I think the BBC is testing the water. It needs to find new sources of revenue, and the hope will be that, in time, we'll all get used to the idea. We expect great programming, but great programming costs money. That can come from a licence fee or from the fact that advertisers want to participate. If we want to keep the two things separate, the Government needs to look at whether there's enough licence-fee funding available."

But Nick Bampton, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, doesn't exactly see it that way. He concludes: "Given that the corporation is in receipt of more than £4 billion of licence-fee income per annum and is already allowed considerable latitude to compete on a commercial level through its BBC Worldwide division, it is impossible to justify advertiser relationships of this type in the UK. This row has damaged the credibility of the BBC, both in the eyes of the viewer and from the commercial sector. It looks like an own goal."

NO - Oliver Cleaver, media director, Kimberly-Clark

"The BBC is clearly stealing money from commercial broadcasters. Our mixed broadcasting economy works so effectively because viewers aren't bombarded by commercial messages in every environment."

MAYBE - Simon Thompson, chief marketing officer, lastminute.com

"Quite rightly, ITV is sensitive about this. That said, the sponsorship allowed more members of the public to attend the event at no additional cost to the licence-fee payer. This is in the public's interest."

YES - George Michaelides, founder, Michaelides & Bednash

"You can see why the commercial broadcasters will be upset because there's a limited pot of commercial revenues. But the BBC also needs more revenue. So this is a collective problem."

NO - Nick Bampton, managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions

"The manner in which the BBC has been flirting with commercialism obviously contravenes the spirit of its Charter. As a result, there has never been a greater need to revisit the whole area of BBC regulation. My advice to Auntie? Stick to your knitting."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.