All we can do is wish George Entwistle well

15 Aug 2012  |  Raymond Snoddy 

Raymond Snoddy on the complex challenges facing the BBC's in-coming director general George Entwistle...

For George Entwistle the easy bit is over. Persuading the BBC Trust to make him director-general was a piece of cake compared with what begins to happen next month - actually doing the job.

He will find out very rapidly, if he doesn't know already, that he faces issues of sufficient complexity to challenge a renaissance man.

They range from re-organising Worldwide, uniting the World Service with the UK news operation, maintaining morale and programme quality while shedding 2,000 staff and £700 million worth of licence fee revenue, at the same time as taking on a wider range of responsibilities plus making the case for a new licence feel deal and Royal Charter.

Perhaps most important of all given the above is how you legislate for something that many feel is very necessary - a period of creative renewal at the BBC.

Competition for the job

First he has to deal with the fall-out from his own appointment - unusually contentious because there was no clear favourite at least at the outset. There were quite a few people who with reason fancied their chances and could be unsettled going forward.

Director of news Helen Boaden was not amused to fail to make the last round. She was told she had done a brilliant job but BBC chairman Lord Patten ruled her out because of lack of commercial experience, presumably in negotiating programme deals.

Caroline Thompson, chief operating officer of the BBC, will still be seething that the job went to a man for the 15th consecutive time in the BBC's history. Many believe she will be off as soon as the right opportunity comes along.

Tim Davie, who has been an effective head of sound and music, could rediscover his commercial free market roots, and if there is a massive re-organisation of BBC Worldwide it might not be to the taste of its successful chief executive John Smith.

At least Entwistle starts his task with considerable internal goodwill - because he is a programme maker, a BBC insider and most of all because he is not Ed Richards, chief executive of communications regulator Ofcom, who must have been misled by someone into seriously believing he was in with a chance despite never having made a programme in his life.

On an historical note three of the eight short-listed candidates - four internal four external - remain unidentified.

Rumours still persist, despite denials, that Jay Hunt of Channel 4 and Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times were in the mix somewhere. The mysterious eighth candidate is said to be a senior figure at the English National Opera. If that is so then that would point the finger at Loretta Tomasi, its chief executive since 2005.

Worldwide

But that is all ancient history. What is important is what George Entwisle, the victor, does now - apart from having to find replacements for any of the senior BBC executives who decide it's time to bail out.

There have been strong reports that Entwistle and Lord Patten want to bring Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, more closely aligned with the public service activities of the Corporation.

Without knowing the details it is impossible to know whether this plan is a good idea or not.

Worldwide under Smith has grown dramatically with annual revenues of more than £1 billion and profits of around £155 million. The purchase of Lonely Planet was seen by many, including the BBC chairman, as a step too far in terms of angering the publishing industry. It has even resulted in a £50 million write-down in value.

It would be very odd though if a BBC that is strapped for cash would do anything to the World Service for doctrinal reasons that would reduce the flow of cash from abroad.

Front-of-house performance

A big question is how good Entwistle will be at the essential front-of-house performances, both internal and external, that will be vital for the BBC's future. The conventional view about the out-going director general, Mark Thomson, is that he got the big strategic decisions right for the BBC but in a rather remote intellectual way and was unable to engage with any warmth with the vital BBC foot-soldiers who actually make the programmes.

The new director-general will have to be able to sweet-talk the much put upon BBC staff and negotiate the size of the next licence fee - and with it the size of the BBC.

It depends of course who is in power at the time. A Labour government will be more sympathetic to the BBC. If Chancellor George Osborne survives both a triple dip recession and the next election he will probably want to have another bite at cutting back the Corporation. He was only curtailed last time by the Lib Dems and the urgent need for a deal ahead of the round of public finance cuts. The Treasury had wanted to carry out a full investigation into the finances of the Corporation.

But renegotiating a new Charter and a new licence fee settlement will be a semi-public process and the success or otherwise of the outcome can be judged.

New hits

How do you cope with the more intangible process of coming up with new hits without having to buy them in from others?

The Voice may have not been an unambiguous hit but it was one of the big BBC entertainment shows of the season and it is a telling example of the process. It was a Warner Bros format made by Shed Productions, which is now controlled by Warners, in a deal that valued the British indy at £100 million.

The top 30 Shed managers are sharing 25% of the equity and that excludes the four founders. So it's a case of millions all round.

How can the BBC compete for talented producers when elsewhere there is the allure of becoming a multi-millionaire? Clearly the person Entwistle replaces himself with as head of Vision is going to be an important appointment.

All we can do is wish George Entwistle well and hope that he doesn't come to regret getting what he most wished for.

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