The case of “trebles all round” for top BBC executives, after a year in which viewers were deceived and trust damaged, rightly dominated news about the Corporation’s annual report this week.
But an eyebrow should be raised at the scale of the bonuses. The overall pay of director of vision Jana Bennett rose by 24 per cent to £536,000 and Jenny Abramsky, outgoing head of audio and music, got 27 per cent more at £419,000 – despite the activities of some of their staff.
Director-general Mark Thompson, who takes no bonus, explained that some executive pay outs had indeed attracted a “discount” of around 40 per cent because of incidents like the phone-in and Blue Peter scandals.
The bonus row has tended to overshadow a number of other significant trends that emerged. One is the fact that the monthly reach of BBC Television actually rose last year despite ever-increasing competition. The rise was tiny – up from 84.4 per cent to 85 per cent. But the modest upturn follows years of decline. At the same time in 2007/2008 BBC Television’s loss of audience share fell by its lowest rate in five years – down 0.5 per cent to 33.8 per cent.
With 86 per cent of the country already switched over to digital, are we close to a new period of audience stability – something that would equally affect ITV and Channel 4? Thomson would just say it was “encouraging” while warning that no-one knew what the impact of the internet, on-demand and mobile television would ultimately be.
There were also some salutary warnings on how the current financial crisis hits everybody, including public bodies like the BBC. The organisation enjoys the unprecedented privilege of around £23bn in guaranteed income over six years. But the sum was based on lower inflation figures, excess buildings that were due to be sold now can’t be, and an extra £50m-£60m will be added to its energy bill between now and 2013. It is a financial position many companies would not mind suffering from.
The activities of BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the Corporation, are of much more central interest. Profits are up by 17 per cent to £117.7m and there are aggressive expansion plans in place.
No less than 3,000 hours of programmes and 15,000 clips are being lined up for Lonely Planet television following the BBC’s purchase of control of the Lonely Plant publishing company last year.
Then there is online TV down-loading service Kangaroo – a joint venture between the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The business could be huge, both in the UK, and later abroad. It could also have quite an impact on potential commercial rivals. Kangaroo has been referred to the competition authorities, a move likely to delay its launch.
Most important of all – details are keenly awaited from BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons about the commissioning of a major study on the economic impact of the BBC on the commercial media sector – and what would happen if the BBC became smaller.