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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 May 2007, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
New Trust chief faces iPlayer row
Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

Sir Michael Lyons
Sir Michael must balance BBC ambition with commercial interests
It is Sir Michael Lyons' first day as chairman of the BBC Trust and already he faces a substantial disagreement with the executives who run the BBC.

The Trust has approved their plans for the iPlayer, which will let viewers catch up with programmes for seven days after they've been broadcast.

But it has crossed out another major item on their shopping list.

They wanted to offer licence-payers the chance to download pieces of classical music to their computers - and from there to their iPods, or other portable players.

It was another "on-demand" proposal, allowing listeners and viewers to enjoy BBC programme content when and where they choose.

You might have thought that allowing people to find and keep classical music was an imaginative way for the BBC to use the new technology for licence-payers' benefit.

One of its roles is to promote culture, particularly among the young, and it invests heavily in orchestras. It's meant to be innovative and this was an area where it was a genuine pioneer.

To allow the BBC to offer free classical downloads may risk a loss of consumer value in the commercial market
BBC Trust
When Radio 3 gave listeners the chance to download broadcasts of Beethoven's symphonies, free of charge, the response was astonishing - they were downloaded 1.4 million times.

It showed the huge potential for distributing classical music online - but it also worried commercial music companies, who feared such free offers could damage their business.

So the BBC scaled back its classical download offerings. Instead of whole symphonies, it decided to offer "tasters" - pieces of up to 10 minutes. It argued that, far from damaging record sales, they could actually stimulate demand for people to buy the full works.

The BBC Trust was unconvinced. In January, in a provisional ruling put out for public consultation, it decided not to permit downloads of classical music or audio books.

There was a huge response to the consultation - more than 10,000 individuals replied - and 66% said the BBC should offer the classical downloads.

Pressing questions

But the BBC Trust remained unmoved. In its final ruling it said: "The market for classical recordings is in a precarious state and to allow the BBC to offer free classical downloads may risk a loss of consumer value in the commercial market which could outweigh the public value gain."

The BBC director general Mark Thompson made plain the management's disappointment.

"We disagree with the Trust's decision to exclude classical music podcasts from the proposal," he said.

"Our research suggests that classical music audiences would wish to download classical music programmes from the BBC and to listen to them on their terms, free at the point of use."

BBC Jam website
BBC Jam was suspended over competition worries
So Sir Michael Lyons - who had nothing to do with the iPlayer decisions - faces a disagreement with the BBC management on his first day in the job. It won't be the last.

The role of the new BBC Trust is to represent the views of the public, not those of the BBC management.

It was set up because the old BBC board of governors was accused of being too close to those running the Corporation.

One of the Trust's duties is to examine the impact of new BBC services on the commercial market and - with the media regulator Ofcom - take account of the views of commercial companies which may be affected.

This is not the first time the BBC Trust has put complaints by commercial companies ahead of the BBC management's ambitions.

Last month it ordered the BBC to suspend its online education service, BBC Jam, and submit new plans, after the European Commission threatened a formal investigation into objections by rival education publishers.

Commercial competitors

Sir Michael is an economist, who helped pay his way through his master's degree by working as a market trader. He spelt out the difficulties ahead in an interview with Andrew Marr.

"The iPlayer is just one of a number of examples where there is a real tension between the BBC doing what it's expected to do, which is to meet the needs of an audience across the country which is changing over time.

"People want to access programmes when they want them rather than to depend on schedules created by other people and it's just one of the issues that emerge from that.

"At the same time the BBC's got to be very careful not to tread on the toes of other competitors because it's a big economic animal, and one of our jobs is actually to make sure that balance is right."

As Sir Michael takes up the reins at the Trust, executives inside and outside the BBC will be looking for clues as to his own views on the relationship between the Corporation and its commercial competitors.


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