Trustees Will Apply Brakes to BBC Worldwide's Commercial Operations

20 November 2008

LONDON: Hauled before Parliament's Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, Sir Michael Lyons (pictured), chairman of the BBC Trust, assured the assembled politicos he had heeded the raft of complaints about the anti-competitive behaviour of the state-owned broadcaster's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.

The howls of anguish emanate both from relatively puny UK rivals and powerful global interests such as Clan Murdoch.

Lyons, himself a political appointee, dutifully toed the line, telling MPs: "The Trust has already decided that we need to tighten both the mission and the guidelines around BBC Worldwide."

As the rules currently stand, any investment by BBCWW must meet four criteria …

  1. That it is commercially efficient;
  2. That proposals fit with the "public purpose" of the BBC;
  3. That they do not "jeopardise the good reputation of the BBC or the value of the BBC brand";
  4. And that they do not distort the market.
Soothed Lyons: "It is now an appropriate time to review the boundaries of [BBCWW activities] and we are of the view that they need to be modestly contained and the detail of that we will make public once we have finished our inquiries."

Meantime, the unit's profits – £117 million ($175.99m; €138.69m) in 2007, on revenues totalling £919m – help to offset the annual license fee (£139.50) payable by all UK households owning a TV receiver.

BBCWW's current remit includes the sale of BBC TV and radio content across the globe; the operation of its own TV channels outside the UK; magazine publishing; ad-supported websites; and the recently acquired Lonely Planet travel guides.

All these activities are viewed by commercial rivals as publicly subsidised competition.

Select Committee chairman John Whittingdale voiced concern at Worldwide's "increasingly ambitious growth strategy".

“Do you see any boundaries to BBC Worldwide's activity?” he asked Lyons, who assured him that an internal inquiry was already "well advanced" albeit unfinished.

BBCWW's current boundaries and guidelines, he said are being  "tested ... and I don't think you are going to be disappointed with the conclusions". The predictable outcome will be published early in 2009.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff