By JILL LAWLESS, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — In BBC boss Mark Thompson, the New York Times has chosen a chief executive who has never worked at a newspaper — but has plenty of experience reshaping a venerable media institution for the digital age.
During eight years in charge of the BBC, Thompson became unpopular with some staff for cutting jobs, eliminating services and slashing pensions.
But he also oversaw expansion of the British broadcaster's multimedia offerings through websites, download services and digital channels — all showcased to impressive effect during the London Olympics.
Announcing Thompson's appointment Tuesday, the Times cited his record in helping the BBC grow online and generate revenue from new types of products.
Doubters point out that Thompson has spent almost his entire career in the publicly funded BBC, insulated from the commercial pressures pummeling the private media.
Columnist and former newspaper editor Roy Greenslade said that in Thompson the Times was getting "a man of considerable intellectual stature ... who has shown himself capable of running a large organization — larger by far than the New York Times."
"What they are not getting is a man of great experience in the harsh commercial environment afflicting the media at the moment," he said.
The BBC remains untainted by the phone-hacking scandal that has engulfed Rupert Murdoch's British media businesses — an empire that includes rival broadcaster BSkyB.
Funded by a fee paid by every television-owning British household, the Beeb has to uphold strict editorial standards of impartiality while fending off occasional government pressure.
By all accounts Thompson coped well with the pressures of running a company with 20,000 employees and a 3.5 billion pound ($5.5 billion) budget. He is generally regarded as levelheaded — although the most famous anecdote about him involves an incident during the 1980s in which he bit a newsroom colleague's arm.
The BBC said the episode was merely "horseplay" that had been misinterpreted.
Educated at Oxford University, Thompson joined the BBC as a production trainee in 1979 and has worked there ever since, save for a two-year gap between 2002 and 2004 as chief executive of commercial broadcaster Channel 4.
He held posts in news and current affairs, and served as head of BBC 2, the broadcaster's second most-watched television channel.
When was named director general in 2004, the BBC was at a low ebb. Thompson's predecessor, Greg Dyke, had been forced to resign following criticism of its reporting on Britain's prewar intelligence about Iraq.
Thompson presided over a difficult period that saw the BBC reduce costs through thousands of job cuts, reductions in operations and unpopular changes to employee pension programs.
He also moved thousands of jobs to the northwestern city of Manchester — to the chagrin of uprooted staff — in a bid to make the broadcaster less London-centric.
During his tenure the BBC has expanded beyond its traditional strengths of current affairs and documentaries to embrace populist entertainments such as TV talent shows. It has also produced globally successful dramas including detective drama "Sherlock."
And he managed tricky funding negotiations with the government, securing renewal of the license fee — currently 145 pounds a year — through 2017.
He also oversaw development of iPlayer, a catch-up service that lets viewers watch all the BBC's output online. It was part of a digital strategy that culminated in the BBC's much-praised coverage of the Olympics, which included live streaming on the web and 24 digital television channels, with almost every event broadcast live.
Thompson, who had earlier announced plans to step down from his BBC position after the Olympics, also is credited with expanding BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm that sells DVDs and other merchandise and licenses for BBC shows outside Britain. It had revenue of about $1.7 billion in the year through March, or about a fifth of the organization's total.
In a 2010 speech, Thompson said the corporation was going through "a period of necessary and often gut-wrenching change" and would emerge smaller but stronger.
Greenslade said the Times' choice of Thompson as its next leader is "either an inspired decision or a risky one."
"I like to think it's the former rather than the latter."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.