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Will Phillis call the cavalry to save the BBC?

The one man thought to be capable of overseeing the successful implementation of PC, the controversial new work policy at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), is Bob Phillis, deputy director-general.

For the uninitiated, PC does not refer to that contentious new code of ethics known as "political correctness" but to "producer choice." The latter is a market-driven system that encourages BBC staff to use outside facilities if they are cheaper than those supplied in-house.

But, just as political correctness has split the various political factions in the U.S. and Europe, producer choice has divided the BBC. Staff have clashed with management, complaining that producer choice is too draconian, too bureaucratic and too demoralizing.

Bob Phillis began his current job as deputy director-general last April, the same day that producer choice was introduced. He is responsible for the Corporation's resources and commercial activities (including BBC Enterprises) and is managing director of BBC World Service radio and TV, which he has to sell to the international market. The entrepreneurial framework of his remit consequently places the fate of producer choice right at his door.

The 48-year-old Phillis and his boss, director-general John Birt, have to prove to a hostile government that the BBC's Royal Charter deserves to be renewed in 1996. The charter authorizes the BBC to collect license fees from the public to fund most of its 1.5 pounds billion annual income. Phillis and Birt must use producer choice to demonstrate that the BBC has dropped its sloppy ways and embraced the cost-control practices of the corporate world.

It is a great responsibility for Phillis, who comes from the private sector. Because his current position makes him heir apparent to rule the world's largest and most influential public broadcaster.

Rumors at this year's Edinburgh International TV Festival (EITF) in Scotland hinted that plans are afoot to use his more cheerful disposition to act as a foil to Birt's more sedate and tense image. And his defense of producer choice at the EITF's debate on the BBC was exuberant and effusive. It may explain why he won the debate:

"Our total income (from the license fee) has been static for the last five years. We need to convince the government of the importance of the license fee. We need to win the Charter renewal debate. If we don't, all that the BBC is proud of is going to be jeopardized," commented Phillis.

He admits the road to recovery will be rocky. "Sure we have made some mistakes in management, but not in principle. Producer choice is about telling us where we can spend our money. I am not ashamed of that. But we can't guarantee we can maintain all the jobs we once had. It isn't surprising that morale is low."

He then demonstrated his ability to soothe the pain caused by the necessary blows. He immediately pointed out that the BBC is to spend 750 million pounds on new program productions this year, plus 50 million pounds more next year, In addition, 16 million pounds was to be poured into production training schemes in 1993. "I don't see the rest of the industry matching this," said Phillis.

His frank approach is attributed to his background, which is diametrically opposite to the Oxford and Cambridge University education that permeates most of the management in today's U.K. TV industry.

Phillis, who left school at 15 (but attended university later on), began his working life in the printing industry before he entered the world of TV in 1981. That was when he was appointed managing director of Central Independent Television. By the time he had pulled Central out of its financial tight spots, he had earned a reputation for being a "Mr. Fixit." He became managing director of Carlton Communications in 1987 and sowed the seeds that have turned Carlton, once an average player in the media, into the most powerful broadcaster on ITV. Four years later, he was brought in to save from bankruptcy Independent Television News (ITN). the ITV's supplier of national and international news. His solution was brutal. Jobs were cut to 650 from 1,100 in a short time.

The BBC is suffering from symptoms similar to those that riddled ITN and Phillis is expected to be equally firm there.
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Title Annotation:Bob Phillis, deputy director-general of British Broadcasting Corporation
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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