The BBC Trust has said that the corporation’s online operation could be scaled back in the future following recent criticism from industry stakeholders. The BBC was also ordered by its internal regulator to rein in the activities of BBC Worldwide, its commercial arm, after competitors complained that the corporation’s huge financial muscle was giving it an unfair advantage. The Trust has also published an ongoing strategic review document for the entire BBC operation.
In his chairman’s commentary, Sir Michael Lyons discussed the prospect of streamlining BBC Online services to “narrow the focus on distinctive content and help to create a more open BBC”. Lyons said he wanted BBC Director General Mark Thompson to ask what “licence fee payers really expect to get from their licence fee and what they might be surprised to see the BBC doing in the online world”.
He indicated that some areas, such as the iPlayer and news online, are safe when he asked: “Beyond the core offer of news, sport, education, children’s and the iPlayer, which parts of the online service are essential to the BBC’s mission and which could be stopped?”
However, Lyons also questioned the future of content created for online that is not directly related to specific BBC programmes, asking, “where should the boundary be drawn” between this and “the online expression or extension of BBC programming”?
The BBC’s online output has recently attracted criticism for using the corporation’s muscle to dominate the market with services already provided by commercial players.
The corporation has been heavily criticised for its 2007 acquisition of Lonely Planet, the guidebook publisher, for £90 million, with rivals claiming it was entering a market that had little relation to the corporation’s core purposes.
Although the report stopped short of ordering Worldwide, which has a turnover in excess of £1 billion, to sell the publisher, Sir Michael said: “The trust would not expect to consider a commercial deal of the scale and nature of the Lonely Planet acquisition in future.”
The trust ordered that Worldwide should become a “more internationally facing business” that would undertake fewer activities in the UK, where the recession has accentuated its size and strength compared to other commercial rivals.
The review also ordered Worldwide to sell off its stakes in non-BBC branded international channels, such as Animal Planet, if it could secure a good return.
Sir Michael recognised the existence of “external concerns over scale and growth of BBC online operations”, but also acknowledged the importance of such services to the public and the UK economy.
“We have no intention of diluting BBC commitment to universal access to free news online,” he said. “But beyond that we want to question honestly what licence fee payers really expect to get from their license fee and what they might be surprised to see the BBC doing in the online world.”
The Trust has outlined three key questions for BBC Online going forward:
1. Beyond the core news, sport and educational content on BBC.co.uk, along with all online children’s output and BBC iPlayer, which parts of the corporation’s online services are essential to its mission, and which should be scrapped?
2. How should the distinct online extensions of BBC programming be distinguished from the services with a “less direct relationship” to BBC content?
3. Should there be clearer boundaries drawn in order to help BBC Online services “provide even greater depth and authority in core areas”?