The year ends as it began: with the BBC in a state of great uncertainty. In January, the cause of anxiety was the imminent Hutton Report – with good reason, as it turned out. It led to the unprecedented departure of both the BBC chairman and the director-general. Now the new director-general has unveiled a grand plan for the corporation that is even more radical than predictions suggested.
To simplify the BBC’s structure and save &£320m a year, Mark Thompson is culling an initial 2,900 jobs, with the prospect of more to come, as more productions are put out to independent producers. A further 2,000 posts could come off the BBC’s books as two of its commercial businesses, BBC Broadcast and BBC Resources, are sold off or opened up to partnerships. Thompson’s plans have been broadly welcomed outside the BBC – by politicians, independent producers, commercial rivals and consumer groups. They’ve been criticised by the unions and are causing apprehension among staff.
The first tranche of job losses will be challenging, to say the least. Most are in what the BBC calls “professional services” – non-broadcast or backroom staff. No fewer than 26 per cent of the posts in marketing, publicity and research are to go. But that is much lower than the 46 per cent cut Thompson has announced for professional services as a whole.
It doesn’t take A-level maths to work out that if one division is taking a 26 per cent hit, one of the others must lose much more than 46 per cent if the overall target is to be reached. That suggests that a whole department – finance and property, say, or personnel – could be “outsourced”, taking it off the books.
A further 1,800 jobs will move to Manchester, though not for five years. As predicted, these include Radio 5 Live, BBC Sport and children’s television and radio, with flagship shows such as Blue Peter, Grandstand and Match of the Day. So too will new media and education, which together will shortly be launching another flagship BBC service, the Digital Curriculum for schools.
The idea has been tried before. Religious programmes and youth entertainment were moved – kicking and screaming in some cases – to Manchester ten years ago. The difference in the new plan is its sheer scale.
Thompson believes that moving departments and channels of the size and importance of sport, children’s TV, new media and 5 Live will make a real difference, not just to the BBC in Manchester, where it will provide critical mass, but to the BBC as a whole, reducing the huge gravitational pull of London.
The decision has been warmly welcomed in the North-west, but will viewers and listeners notice any difference? Viewers probably won’t. The two TV channels to be based there, CBBC and CBeebies, are studio-based and much of their programming is already made outside London. Programmes like A Question of Sport already come from Manchester and you wouldn’t really know, any more than you can hear the difference when Radio 4 shows like The Moral Maze and The Choice are made there.
But some believe the move of 5 Live really could change perceptions. This view is not widely shared on the network at the moment, where journalists fear its removal from London will take it away from key interviewees and decision-makers. They point out that 5 Live is already the least London-sounding of the BBC’s radio networks, which of course is one reason it has been chosen.
As a live news and sport network, 5 Live to some extent reflects the daily life of its presenters, reporters and guests – including such seemingly trivial matters as how they get to work and the weather. A move to Manchester should reflect that, as Mark and Lard did on Radio 1 when their programme came from there. News bosses also hope it could subtly change 5 Live’s news agenda, distancing it further from that of Radio 4.
But much can change in five years. Grand BBC plans don’t always come to fruition. The Langham building, opposite Broadcasting House in central London, was to be knocked down and replaced by an iconic Norman Foster building, housing the BBC’s radio networks. The plan was abandoned and the Langham is now a luxury hotel. Another ambitious plan, for a BBC News Centre at White City, was jettisoned in another bout of cost-cutting.
The BBC governors have yet to approve the Manchester move. Its funding depends on the licence-fee settlement, which is unlikely to be decided until 2006. It could also have an impact on the future viability of BBC Television Centre, which has eight TV studios, four of which rely heavily on sport and children’s TV for their use. The move towards more independent productions could shrink demand further. The studios are part of BBC Resources, which is due to be put up for sale or partnership, so the uncertainty could delay that part of the grand plan too.
Before then, the governors must also approve the detailed plans for cost- cutting and new programme expenditure, which are due by the end of the financial year. For the BBC, 2005 could be almost as eventful as 2004.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News