BBCW= 'will become empty vessel if =sold'

Tuesday, December 15 2009,

BBC= director general Mark Thompson has warned that BBC Worldwide could become an "empty vessel" if the government forges ahead with plans for its sale.

Last week, ministers included the BBC's commercial arm in a list of assets suggested for "sale or partial sale". The government also wants the BBC to achieve a "greater financial and operational separation" in the future.

However, Thompson responded by saying that he "cannot envisage" a situation where the BBC is not playing a central role in Worldwide's operation.

Writing in a comment piece for The Guardian, Thompson warned that the 1bn annual turnover asset would "only be worth a fraction of its present value" if the sale went through. He also stressed that "the right question to ask" is not how to scale back the organisation, but how best to "develop and exploit it".

Thompson described Worldwide, which has successfully commercialised BBC properties such as Top Gear and Strictly Come Dancing around the world, as a "unique asset" to Britain.

He accepted=, though, that the organisation's success is uncomfortable for some people, who believe that it is "dubious enough" for the BBC to even have a commercial operation.

However, Thompson claimed that "a Worldwide wholly separated from the BBC makes no strategic or commercial sense", and that taking away BBC branding from the organisation would result in it becoming "an empty vessel".

"What we cannot envisage is a Worldwide in which the BBC does not continue to play a central role. Without the BBC brand, BBC intellectual property and the ability to deliver international BBC services, Worldwide would only be worth a fraction of its present value," he explained.

"And a BBC stripped of Worldwide would not only fail to capitalise on its present opportunities, but would struggle to maintain international visibility and relevance."

Thompson= also discussed two major drawbacks facing the long-mooted partnership between Worldwide and Channel 4.

"The first is the mismatch between Worldwide, which is an engine for exploiting rights and which has an increasingly international focus, and Channel 4, which has almost no exploitable rights and no consumer brand awareness outside the UK," he said.

"The= second reason is more fundamental, and is that a Worldwide wholly separated from the BBC makes no strategic or commercial sense. Global audiences flock to BBC programmes and to the BBC brand; take those away and Worldwide becomes an empty vessel."

Despite= his strong beliefs on Worldwide's ownership situation, Thompson said that the BBC Trust is maintaining an "open mind" about the organisation's long-term capital structure.

However=, he added: "Reports= that the BBC is already preparing for a partial flotation are simply untrue. Indeed, a change is not inevitable or even necessarily desirable at any point in the future. But nor should it be automatically ruled out.="