When the British nation was faced with the worst crisis of the past two generations, it turned to the BBC. That’s a fact outlined in Ofcom’s media consumption tracking, which showed that BBC One’s popularity soared during the pandemic.
Stuck at home with nothing to do, the UK public tuned in daily to Number 10’s press conferences at the height of the lockdowns. The most telling aspect was that they chose the BBC’s analysis, coverage and commentary over its peers and competitors.
Trust, authenticity and legacy won out. But you wouldn’t realise that from the BBC’s own defenders, who have inadvertently trivialised and reduced Auntie into a simple financial value proposition.
When the Media and Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries floated plans to scrap the BBC’s main funding instrument by 2027 (the £159 per year licence fee, which brings in more than £3.7bn per year), some of the broadcaster’s biggest stars took to social media to defend it.
BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker led the charge, boasting about the “43p per day” licence fee payers have to hand over alongside an infographic of the BBC’s main channels and radio shows.
Notably, BBC Local Radio didn’t get its own tile on the infographic and neither did BBC Nations Radio, thus spectacularly missing the point that the BBC’s value stretches far beyond a monthly or yearly cash transaction by providing extensive regional and local news and entertainment at a scale the likes of the US’ NPR could only dream of.
The reductio ad absurdum of the 43p brigade also fails to recognise the ‘soft power’ the BBC gives the UK on the world stage and the global cultural cache the BBC branding brings (the BBC’s public affairs team should really figure out how much the BBC contributes to British tourism per year and overall GDP).
The other trap of the pure financial argument is that you can’t cancel the licence fee at any time like Netflix, Amazon Prime or Disney+. If you tried that, you may eventually find yourself with a criminal record (it costs £135m per year for the BBC to collect the licence fee).
And that’s where the dividing line really emerges — ultimately, should the UK government continue to support a regressive, one-size-fits-all levy equivalent in many ways to the infamous Poll Tax? Ironically enough for some given the party’s past history, this Conservative government has said ‘no’.
The problem now for the BBC is that it is relying on the so-called Perry Review or ‘TV Licence Fee Enforcement Review’ as its core defence. The 2015 report, overseen by David Perry QC, recommended that the licence fee regime was kept in place.
Beyond that top-line takeaway, Perry also advised that the government and BBC should “explore ways of amending the current regulations to allow simple and flexible payment plans for those facing difficulty in paying the licence fee”.
As it stands, you can pay your TV Licence via direct debit or as a one-off annual payment. Concessions are given to students, while some over 75 households are eligible for a free TV Licence.
There’s no opportunity to opt-out of programming you may never watch or radio output you don’t want to support.
It also means licence fee payers, who are facing a cost of living crisis with ever-increasing inflation (check-out the ONS’ latest Labour Market Report), are backing the heady salaries of the likes of Gary Lineker. The Match of The Day (MOTD) presenter takes in more than £1.3m per year from the BBC.
Lineker and the BBC Sports team may argue that is a remuneration package commensurate to the market demand.
But the BBC has a monopoly over the media, therefore giving its on-screen talent over-exposure to the public and other stakeholders when compared to other broadcasters, namely ITV, Sky and Channel 4.
Then there is the fact that many of these Premier League highlights are accessible free-of-charge on YouTube thanks to Sky Sports Football’s digital offering. The main point here is that the world of media has moved on drastically from 2015 and that’s reflected in how people consume TV, radio and print.
Ofcom’s research has shown that 16-34 year-olds now watch more Netflix and Amazon than all UK broadcaster content combined and the BBC’s annual £2.5bn content budget dwarfs in comparison to Netflix’s £11bn content spend. For Gen-Z, Gen-Y and below, the licence fee is looking increasingly anachronistic.
As it stands, there have been no meaningful trials of moving away from the licence fee model. Many European public service broadcasters supplement their public funding with advertising.
Would the commercialisation of BBC 3 or another Tier 2 channel (BBC One and BBC Two being considered as the top dogs) be such a bad thing? As another approach, economist Philip Booth has proposed a subscriber-owned mutual system, in a model reminiscent of the Co-op or National Trust.
Equally, if the BBC was to be funded by a progressive tax, it would open-up an overdue debate about what ‘public service broadcasting’ actually stands for.
This is precisely what happened in Switzerland when public service broadcasting funding was updated. It matters in the UK because independent and commercial outfits face being barged out of the way by the BBC.
Its dominance in the British podcast space is just one example of its overweight monopoly going unchecked at the expense of innovation and small and medium-sized business growth.
Even in its well-respected news division, it could do a much better job at linking to and promoting original source material and inviting the journalists behind the stories (often press hacks) onto its shows (as is common in the US).
What is clear is that the status quo is no longer tenable for the BBC. A modernisation of its core is needed. But as a 99-year-old institution with more than 22,000 staff, this won’t come fast and its current identity won’t go unscathed.