BBC to drop 2 radio stations, cut number of Web pages in half in domestic revamp

By Raphael G. Satter, AP
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

BBC cuts radio stations, Web pages to trim costs

LONDON — Britain’s venerable BBC is overhauling its domestic coverage, shedding radio stations, slicing the number of its Web pages by half and moving out of magazines.

The BBC says it wants to focus on quality over quantity, but commentators say the move aims to placate critics who allege the state-sponsored media giant is suffocating its private rivals.

Whatever the case, the BBC’s foreign audience — from Afghan listeners of BBC Pashto to American fans of “Antiques Roadshow” — aren’t likely to see much in the way of changes. And at a time when U.S. media organizations such as ABC have promised massive layoffs in their news operations, the nearly 90-year-old broadcaster says it’s putting extra money into its journalism.

BBC Director Mark Thompson said in a blog post Tuesday explaining the changes that the question was not “How big should the BBC be?” but “What is the BBC for?”

The broadcaster has a huge presence in Britain, running four main television channels, a popular news Web site, 10 national radio stations, 40 local stations, on top of its respected 24-hour news channel, children’s channel CBeebies, a parliamentary television channel and other media.

The BBC relies heavily on TV license fees paid by British consumers to subsidize its 3.5 billion pound ($5.2 billion) budget, and Britons often complain that the mandatory fee is too high — 142.50 pounds ($210) per year per household for a color TV.

Recent criticism has focused on the hefty salaries paid to top executives and leading BBC presenters as well as the costly renovation of its Broadcasting House offices in central London.

“The general sense is that the BBC is too big … that has been a commonplace view for quite a while,” media consultant Steve Hewlett said.

The broadcaster’s plans include cutting the 6 Music station, aimed at alternative music listeners, and the Asian Network, geared toward Britons of south Asian descent, as well as halving the number of Web pages it hosts.

Spending on Web content will be cut by 25 percent, while physical media, such as the BBC’s stable of a dozen-plus magazines, may also be affected.

Broadcasting union Bectu said up to 600 jobs could go in the shakeup. Thompson said the money saved — about 600 million pounds (nearly $900 million) — would be redirected into producing high-quality programming.

The broadcaster’s strategic review — which must undergo a public consultation before it is finalized — doesn’t affect BBC Worldwide, which sells content and licenses formats for use abroad, including shows such as “Dancing with the Stars,” ”Antiques Roadshow,” and “Doctor Who” in the United States.

The BBC’s World Service — which gets its funding from the Foreign Office and broadcasts in Arabic, Pashto, and 30 other languages — isn’t covered by the review.

Hewlett described the proposed overhaul as “mainly a domestic issue.”

The BBC has also come under fire from its domestic rivals — including James Murdoch, whose family runs a media empire which includes Fox News, The Times of London, The Sun tabloid, The Wall Street Journal and broadcaster BSkyB.

Murdoch last year accused the broadcaster of “dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market” and using taxpayer funding to outgun its private rivals.

“The scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling,” he warned.

Britain’s opposition Conservatives, who are ahead in the polls and enjoy the backing of The Sun, have been casting a critical eye on the BBC as they prepare for Britain’s general election this spring.

The right-leaning Tories have traditionally been suspicious of the broadcaster, which some accuse of harboring a liberal bias. Jeremy Hunt, the party’s spokesman on media affairs, has said the BBC should consider dropping several of its digital radio stations, including 6 Music.

Jeremy Dear of the National Union of Journalists said the BBC was bowing to pressure from political and commercial interests, while lawmaker Don Foster, with Britain’s opposition Liberal Democrat party, said the broadcaster was using 6 Music and the Asian Network as “sacrificial lambs” to pay for its revamp.

Listeners and music industry figures also spoke out against the reforms, launching a Twitter campaign to save 6 Music.

Hewlett said politics was only part of the story, explaining that the BBC had been struggling with its mission for some time. Still he admitted there was no doubt the looming elections prompted the cuts.

“There’s no question that some of this political,” he said. “These are certainly choppy waters.”

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