LONDON - Maneuvering to safeguard its future and reputation, the BBC, Britain's venerable public broadcaster, announced yesterday some of the deepest job cuts in its 82-year history, saying 2,900 jobs would be cut over three years to save about $610 million in annual costs.
The cuts would reduce the staff of 27,000 by more than 10 percent, and the plan drew an immediate strike threat from labor unions.
"The BBC must undergo nothing short of transformation," Mark Thompson, the director general, said at a meeting with staff members in London that was broadcast to BBC offices throughout Britain. "This is not a time for introspection and endless debate. It's a moment for action."
The crux of the issue is the $210 compulsory annual license fee levied on all owners of television sets, who are routinely warned in advertisements that they can be prosecuted and fined up to $2,000 for failing to pay.
The BBC faces challenges to the credibility of its journalism and is under pressure to show that it is not wasting public money as it prepares to negotiate the renewal in 2006 of a royal charter that sets the level of license fees and guarantees the broadcaster's independence from government interference.
Last week, the BBC's worldwide 24-hour news station was duped by a hoaxer claiming to represent Dow Chemical Co. and had to issue a retraction and apology.
The license fee raises almost $6 billion a year in revenue for the BBC, much to the annoyance of pay-TV operators such as BskyB, controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. They say the fee is an anachronism when digital technology has transformed the television business.
The fee also finances much of BBC radio and is far less costly than the annual fees of $800 or more charged by satellite and cable companies. But the BBC fee is compulsory, and that fuels criticism that it is unfair to the public and to rival broadcasters.
Thompson joined the BBC as director general in May from the commercial TV station Channel 4 to replace Greg Dyke, who, along with Chairman Gavyn Davies, was forced to quit after an official inquiry in January faulted the BBC for reporting that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had exaggerated the threat from Saddam Hussein's weapons programs to justify the war in Iraq.
Thompson said most of the job cuts would be in support operations such as human resources and accounting, allowing program-makers to concentrate on news coverage and high-quality drama, comedy and other shows.
Thompson said 1,800 staff members would move to the BBC's offices in Manchester, in northwestern England, over the next five years.
The move would affect sports coverage, some radio news and some children's programming, he said.