Should we scrap the TV licence fee? Is subscription the way forward for the BBC?
- Credit: BBC/BBC America/Steve Schofield
Is the BBC licence fee nearing the end of its natural life? Ideas about turning it into a subscription service have been suggested. It seems quite a good idea
The BBC licence fee has been a fact of life since November 1923 when the people of Great Britain were first compelled to pay 10 shillings a year to listen to the wireless. In June 1946 this modest fee was raised to £2 to cover the costs of funding a fledgling national television service and it has been an integral part of our national landscape ever since.
But, in recent years, as the political arena has become increasingly volatile and divisive, the BBC and the BBC licence has become a target for right-wing critics who see it as the mouthpiece for liberal critics of Tory government policy. They feel they shouldn't have to pay to be criticised. Also, they subscribe to a free market philosophy where market forces should dictate the success of any venture.
So, over the past decade-and-a-half, there has been a growing movement to scrap the BBC licence fee and force the corporation to accept advertising. However, with advertising revenue dwindling, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV are none too keen to share their shrinking revenue pool.
Also many BBC supporters don't want their drama, comedies or David Attenborough wildlife documentaries disrupted by lots of annoying ad breaks. One of the joys of the BBC is that it is ad-free. But, like it or not, the way that the BBC is funded has to change. As with most things in modern life, nothing stays the same for long and the way that the younger generations view television has confirmed the belief that the TV licence is out-dated and is no longer fit for purpose.
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The BBC charter is not up for renewal for another eight years but an announcement by Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan at the tail end of last week has prompted speculation that when the BBC's charter comes up for renewal in 2027, then the BBC could become a US-style subscription service.
Nicky Morgan, in a Commons statement, said that she would be open to the idea of scrapping the current BBC television licence fee and replacing it with a fee-based subscription service similar to the model used by Netflix, Sky and Amazon as well as US cable giants HBO and streaming service Hulu.
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This would mean that only people who wanted to access BBC programmes or radio stations would be required to pay a subscription fee. BBC America works on a similar model and has even starting producing its own programming like Killing Eve, which played with huge success on BBC 1.
The BBC have suggested that although a subscription service may appear to work in theory, revenues would be reduced and it could threaten their ability to produce expensive showcase series like Strictly Come Dancing, Doctor Who, Blue Planet and The Bodyguard.
Last year the licence fee last year raised £3.7 billion for the BBC which was spent on providing content for TV channels BBC1, BBC 2 and BBC4 as well as supplying streaming channel BBC3 as well as specialist children's channels CBBC and Cbeebies. BBC radio is also funded by the licence fee which includes the county radio network and the World Service.
Let's not beat about the bush, this is a huge edifice to try and support and I suspect that trying to fund the current BBC network on subscription may indeed prove problematic but if a hybrid funding system was adopted then a subscription system just might work.
Not only that, certain areas of BBC production, BBC drama for instance, might just thrive. The BBC is an important part of the British way of life but it is also a well-respected ambassador to the world. BBC drama and documentaries sell incredibly well abroad. They also have a number of long-lasting co-production relationships with American, Canadian and Australian broadcasters and production houses.
It may be possible to charge advertising fees for pre-show trailers which the BBC currently screen for free. There are also sponsorship opportunities for hit shows. This will help spread costs, expand investment and allow BBC funded series like War & Peace, Les Miserables and The Night Manager to go head-to-head with the expensive showcase series put out by the big American TV giants like Netflix and now Amazon.
Audiences now demand cinema-style, shot on location thrillers with big-name stars and compelling stories that keep them guessing until the last instalment. They want to be challenged, surprised and entertained with 'must-see' TV, which is why Fleabag has been such a hit.
Modern TV watching is now much more active. It's like selecting food from a restaurant menu rather the linear, passive experience that audiences were used to in the past. Gone are the days when you sat down at 7pm and watched EastEnders or Coronation Street and stayed with the same channel until News At Ten or maybe just switched once to catch something good on the other side.
Today, with a seemingly limitless offer of everything from prestige drama to lightweight game shows, the BBC must play to its strengths and attract audiences who love the corporation's understated excellence - that's what it has to sell.
It has been assumed that the BBC subscription service would just be offered to UK audiences but as Netflix and Amazon have proved and international audience would love the BBC's quality dramas and documentaries. BBC America has proved that subscription does work overseas and so you could offer BBC streaming channels in much of the world, certainly the bulk of commonwealth countries. Who knows, international fees may even exceed the current BBC licence fee income.
We cannot forget that the BBC is also a public service broadcaster and will need support to continue to produce minority interest programmes or hugely expensive wildlife films that can take many years to complete.
Maybe there could still be some form of government subsidy or Arts Council style, TV-funding body which would be responsible for that.
Making the BBC a subscription-based service is a daring move but it is one which, in theory encourages them to make top quality dramas and documentaries, and offers a funding model which potentially could match their licence fee income.
I believe that the licence has come to the end of its life. Young people are used to paying for pick and mix viewing on various streaming sites and the BBC could sit quite comfortably in this new TV landscape and, dare I say it, thrive.