BBC Boss Plays Politics, Advocates Channel 4 and Five Merger

13 January 2009

LONDON: BBC director-general Mark Thompson (pictured) is as accomplished in politicking as he is experienced in broadcasting – although many might argue that there's precious little difference between the two.

Writing in the Financial Times on Monday, Thompson rah-rahed it for a merger between rival broadcasters Channel Four (state-owned, like the BBC) and Five, a unit of Bertelsmann's RTL Group.

It's a marriage reportedly favoured by former Ofcom ceo, Lord Stephen Carter, now enobled to perform the arduous duties of junior minister of communications, technology and broadcasting.

It is not known if Bertelsmann shares Thompson's enthusiasm for the nuptials. Channel Four certainly does not, although when Thompson was at its helm back in 2004, he rooted for such a deal.

Which brings us back to politicking. 

The government recently revealed that BBC licence fee revenues, effectively a tax on the public at large, during the period  2000-1 to 2004-5 exceeded £13 billion ($19.88bn; €14.53bn).

What Thompson emphatically does not want is for that income to be top-sliced to provide Channel Four with additional revenues - an option that has already been floated with a fair degree of support.

Hence, say insiders, his eagerness to act as matchmaker between his two smaller rivals.

Ostensibly, however, Thompson's advocacy for merger is driven by concern as to "how public service television can migrate beyond traditional television to digital platforms ... and ... stimulate demand for universal high-speed broadband". 

Argues the director-general: "A smaller number of larger players [could] focus on credible and affordable digital plans." 

The one certainty is that ITV would vigorously oppose any such move.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff