Digital Britain: BBC Worldwide to be given more flexibility

BBC Worldwide could become more commercial and be given more freedom from the corporation, communications minister Stephen Carter has suggested.

The BBC’s commercial arm, which turned over £916m last year, exploits the rights to BBC content and reinvests the money in public service programming.

Today’s interim Digital Britain report has suggested that BBC Worldwide could become more free to enter into commercial partnerships with other broadcasters.

The most likely candidate would be Channel 4, which has warned of a funding deficit in the region of £150m a year by 2012.

Digital Britain reiterated Ofcom’s proposal that C4 should form joint ventures and become a larger public service broadcaster to rival the BBC.

In his report, Carter said a tie-up between Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide “makes sense” – but should not be the only option on the table.

“[Worldwide] is a business that’s come under much scrutiny,” he told journalists at a press conference in London this afternoon.

“One of the questions we’re asking is whether we could give it greater financial separation from the BBC.”

Carter said financial advisors had been appointed to look at how a new second public service broadcaster, with Channel 4 at its heart, would work.

“There’s a lot of work to be done when you get down to the guts of designing it,” he said.

“We’re going to go through a very detailed process to put that together in a way that’s credible.”

Asked if the prospect of a C4-Five merger was now off the table, Carter said the government had never publicly spoken out on this – and it would be inappropriate to do so, as Five was a private company with its own shareholders.

“I know the broadcasting industry has been talking about this for five years, but the government has not,” he said.

“We make no reference to Channel Five but we do say very explicitly that we’ve not ruled out declarations of interest from other players.”

Carter added that the government remained committed to a “strong fully-funded BBC” – but that sharing part of the core BBC licence fee was still an option.

“Other options must remain on the table, including top-slicing,” the interim report said.

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