Report: BBC Online Should Stick to News

By: Robert Barr, Associated Press Writer

(AP) The British Broadcasting Corp. should drop some features from its popular Web site and concentrate on news, said a British government report released Monday.

The review, commissioned by the department of culture, media and sport, also calls for outside contractors to provide a quarter of the site’s non-news content by 2006.

The BBC, whose Internet activities have been strongly criticized by commercial publishers, was given until October to respond. But the corporation said it had already closed some sites, and planned to shut down five more.

Philip Graf, the author of the review, said that some BBC sites — including fantasy football, games and listings of entertainment events — were little different from commercial competitors, or were only faintly associated with the BBC’s commitment to public service.

Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of new media and technology, said that advice had been taken.

“We are now proposing to close five more sites. The ‘what’s on’ events listings site, ‘fantasyfootball,’ and the games portal are not sufficiently distinctive to the market: the ‘surfing’ portal and ‘pure soap’ site will also close, on the grounds that their market impact might be greater than their public value,” Highfield said.

“There is clearly great public affection and appreciation of BBC Online, so i hope that, in their interest, my conclusions provide constructive input to both the BBC” and to the culture department’s review of the BBC charter, Graf said.

Graf is a former chief executive of Trinity Mirror plc, which owns the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror newspapers and some 250 regional newspapers.

The British Internet Publishers Alliance, in its submission to Graf’s review, accused the BBC of spending up to 100 million pounds (US$180 million) a year on its Web site, in contrast to an agreed budget of 21 million pounds (US$38 million).

Spending on news content, Graf reported, was projected to be 15.5 million pounds (US$28 million) this year.

“BIPA has exposed a catalogue of broken promises by the BBC and has provided the Graf review with detailed evidence to show how far the BBC has strayed from its own public service remit, and how it has damaged the delivery of consumer choice,” said Hugo Drayton, managing director of the Telegraph Group and former manager of its Internet services.

Graf reported that there was some evidence that BBC Online had an adverse impact on competition.

“In particular, BBC Online might lessen competition by deterring investment by commercial operators that could have led to new forms of competition,” the report said.

“At the same time, it seems unlikely that BBC Online has eliminated effective competition across any large areas of online content,” the report said.

“Although some content markets may be very narrow, and the data does not exist for a complete analysis of market shares, effective competition occurs in many of the content markets supplied by BBC Online; relevant evidence includes the obvious choice available to users in many areas, the ability for competition to be sustained on account of consumers’ varied preferences for online content, and the scope for competitive entry.

“Even so, a risk remains that BBC Online might eliminate effective competition in certain markets.”

Graf said BBC Online should be distinct from commercial sites.

“The quality of a particular service, however high, does not constitute distinctiveness per se,” he said.

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