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BBC sells Lonely Planet at 60-per-cent loss

Ian Wright, one-time star of the Lonely Planet TV show, mugs for the camera in a file photo.

Patti Gower/Globe and Mail

Publicly-funded British broadcaster the BBC is selling Lonely Planet, whose travel guides have been dubbed the backpackers' bible, taking a 60-per-cent loss on a business that critics say strayed beyond its public service remit.

BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the British Broadcasting Corporation, said on Tuesday it was selling Lonely Planet to U.S.-based NC2 Media for £51.5-million ($77.8-million U.S.) as part of a drive to refocus on BBC brands.

The BBC bought a majority stake in Lonely Planet in 2007 and four years later became the sole shareholder of a business which had revolutionized the travel guide industry with its focus on offbeat locations and personal experiences.

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In total, the BBC paid out £130.2-million.

BBC Trust, the broadcaster's governing body, said yesterday it has ordered a review of the NC2 Media deal, according to the Daily Telegraph.

"We acquired Lonely Planet in 2007 when both our strategy and the market conditions were quite different," said BBC Worldwide's interim chief executive Paul Dempsey.

"However, we have also recognized that it no longer fits with our plans to put BBC brands at the heart of our business and have decided to sell the company to NC2 Media who are better placed to build and invest in the business," Mr. Dempsey said.

The sale to NC2 Media, whose main shareholder is Kentucky billionaire Brad Kelley, will take place at the end of March.

The BBC's purchase of Lonely Planet was part of a broader trend to diversify by broadcasters which also saw British rival ITV spend – and ultimately lose – tens of millions of pounds on the Friends Reunited social network.

The acquisition of Lonely Planet drew criticism at the time for appearing to stray from the public services remit of the BBC, which is publicly funded through a licence tax.

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Founded 40 years ago by husband and wife Tony and Maureen Wheeler in Australia, Lonely Planet has printed 120 million books that map out tourist trails around the world.

The BBC said the brand's financial performance had been hit by the strength of the Australian dollar as well as the impact of global economic turmoil on leisure travel.

The broadcaster said it would receive 41.2 million pounds on completion of the sale, and 10.3 million pounds in 12 months.

Billionaire Brad Kelley, who made his fortune selling discount cigarettes in the 1990s, is one of the biggest landowners in the United States and has an interest in racing thoroughbred horses, according to the Forbes website.

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