BBC director general Greg Dyke has said he wished the corporation had made reality show Big Brother.
Big Brother is now in its fourth series on Channel 4
The show, which was sold to Channel 4, was a TV gem because it was original, Mr Dyke told a newspaper.
But he thinks the show's creator, Peter Bazalgette, did not offer it to the BBC because "it would have been agony for us to decide whether to do it" at the time.
Speaking to The Guardian, Mr Dyke defended the BBC's output and said its five commercial arms were expected to report a profit for the first time in a decade.
The BBC was an efficient company and did not deserve much of the criticism levelled at it, he told the paper, adding its output was more important than ever in the face of increasing US media influence.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has said the licence fee should act as "the nation's venture capital for creativity".
But Mr Bazalgette did not offer Big Brother to the BBC because he thought it would have taken too long to decide, Mr Dyke said.
"I think he's right - we would have agonised - but I think we probably should have done it. It was an original piece of television."
But he said the BBC would not have made ITV1's reality TV show set in a jungle, I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here.
Mr Dyke also defended talent show Fame Academy, which was accused of being copied from ITV1's Popstars.
"I'm not sure it wasn't distinctive, but I agree with you that it was derivative," he said.
He also spoke about the corporation's finances.
The organisation was criticised for not spending the licence fee wisely under his predecessor, John Birt - but those same critics now say it has "too much money" left over after spending was streamlined, he said.
"They can't have it both ways. It's like the argument that the public sector has always used against efficiency - that there's no point because they take it away from you at the end of it," he said.
The director general added there was a danger that UK broadcasters could follow the US trend of becoming obsessed with money rather than quality.
"In a fragmenting market, I have always argued that the role of the BBC becomes more important, not less," he said.
Mr Dyke made his name as a broadcaster in ITV, starting out at London Weekend Television in 1977. He became its chief executive in 1991, a post he held for three years until the company was bought by Granada.
During that time he also spent spells with now-defunct companies TV-am and TVS. They lost their licences in 1992, under the system which saw ITV franchises auctioned off to the highest bidder.