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BBC cuts: rumour mill goes into overdrive

Speculation and rumours over which BBC services will be cut next have gone into overdrive, following a number of key announcements by senior BBC managers this week.

BBC Director General Tony Hall, who is preparing a detailed announcement about future BBC cuts in the coming weeks, has told delegates at the Media & Telecoms Conference 2016 that the cuts will now be larger than previously expected - instead of saving £700 million a year, the BBC will have to save £800 million a year by 2022; the extra savings required to counteract soaring sports and drama costs. Even allowing for higher sports costs, the overall amount of sport that the BBC will be able to acquire will fall.

BBC News will have to make £80 million of annual savings, which has once again put the spotlight on the BBC News Channel. However, within hours of the Director General's speech, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale warned against closing the News Channel. He told BBC Assistant Political Editor Norman Smith that "The priority is news. There are savings within the BBC that don't require them to slash news budgets or close a channel."

Radio 5 Live has once again come under the spotlight, because of both news and sport budget cuts: beyond speculation about the station going online-only, which surfaced in The Guardian last month, and subsequently dismissed by station controller Jonathan Wall, there's now speculation that the service will have to merge with BBC Local Radio, echoing proposals first published five years ago, as part of the last round of cuts brought about by the 2010 licence fee agreement.

Meanwhile, the future status of arts-heavy BBC Four is in doubt, after the Controller of BBC TV channels and the iPlayer, Charlotte Moore, said that BBC Two would become "the flagship channel for contemporary arts and music". In a speech on Monday night, she cited BBC Four as the home for "culture and ideas", a possible nod to a link with the new BBC Ideas Service, one of the corporation's recently announced projects that will be available online. The Ideas Service aims to partner the BBC with leading academic, arts and science institutions such as the British Museum, the Royal Society, the Royal Shakespeare Company, leading arts festivals and galleries to curate and commission content and offer an online resource, similar to the Arts Council and BBC joint venture The Space, which debuted in 2012.

BBC Four is widely seen as one of the services that will escape cuts, something that hasn't gone unnoticed by critics of the BBC's plans.

Speaking to the RadioTimes, Roger Mosey, former BBC Radio 5 Live controller and London 2012 BBC Director of Coverage, said that the cuts were affecting younger audiences disproportionately. He accused the BBC of protecting “affluent heartland audiences” and arts programmes from cuts at the expense of younger viewers.

He said:
“The loss of Formula One on TV and the slashing of BBC3’s budget are hitting the same younger audiences. The affluent heartland audiences are protected, and the arts world indulged, while sport is raided; and it will compound the problem if 5 Live is next in line for emasculation.”

BBC Director General Tony Hall is expected to reveal more about the next round of cuts this spring.