Should the BBC be a subscription service?
- Credit: BBC/Sid Gentle Films/Jason Bell
The pressure is on to reform the way that the BBC is funded. Many favour the introduction of a subscription service which could work but, arts editor Andrew Clarke warns that, we may lose more than we gain
Make no mistake, the world has changed a great deal since the BBC licence fee was first introduced on June 1 1946. It would be more accurate to say that the greatest change has occurred in the last 20 years with the introduction of streaming services, the explosion in satellite channels and fast-speed cable which have turned televisions into multi-media, computer terminals.
Suddenly, the whole notion of terrestrial TV channels and the BBC licence fee seems very out-dated - very last century. This view has gained a lot of traction in recent weeks, particularly after Prime Minister Boris Johnson virtually declared war on the BBC last week, when he stated he wanted to look at the way the corporation was funded. This weekend a new survey conducted by ComRes for the Sunday Express has revealed that more than half of those questioned want the licence fee scrapped.
But, although it is clear that the way the BBC is funded has to be adapted to fit into a new multi-channel, multi-media, multi-device world, the people clamouring for the abolition of the licence fee or the abolition of the BBC itself should stop and think about what they will be losing.
It has been proposed that the BBC be reduced to a single news/current affairs channel, a single public service radio station with a much reduced web presence. The government have suggested that their main resources should be spent on presenting a positive view of Britain to our friends and neighbours via the World Service.
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But, would we all be poorer if the BBC's coverage was carved up into different subscription packages, which would appear to be the government's favourite option?
The BBC is more than the provider of mainstream channels and peak viewing comedies and dramas. It also provides much needed high quality children's programmes as well as schools programming which is difficult to find elsewhere.
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When people talk about alternative commercial providers, they normally just restrict their view to primetime, binge-worthy box set series but it is the smaller, community-based or niche programming that would be under threat if the BBC were to disappear.
What would happen to children's programming or coverage of the arts? Natural history series like the Blue Planet or any number of David Attenborough's multi-part Life on Earth series would also be under threat. They are incredibly popular but also incredibly expensive and time consuming to produce.
Multiple camera teams are sent across the globe to sit for days, weeks, months or maybe even years waiting for something to happen. Nature doesn't respect a shooting schedule. You can predict (or rather best guess) when certain events are likely to happen but you can't guarantee anything and even if they do happen you can't always be certain that the camera team will always be in the right place to capture it.
Will commercial stations be willing to invest the time and the money it takes to create a series like Life on Earth or The Living Planet? It is unlikely. As a result our television schedules and our knowledge of the natural world will be a lot poorer.
The same will be true of its news coverage. Many of its critics say that the BBC is too left-wing, too liberal, too London. Ofcom reported that during the last election campaign 22% of its complaints were that the BBC was merely pushing left-wing propaganda while 17% of complainants said that the corporation was too right-wing, which suggests news remains fairly balanced. The problem has come about because Facebook and Twitter have created self-referencing echo chambers and political activists don't want to hear different view points. It is the need for balance that lands the BBC in trouble.
So, would a subscription model work? It could - particularly in a world where BBC dramas and comedies could be made available worlwide. Series like The Bodyguard, The Night Manager, Killing Eve, Gentleman Jack do amazingly well America, Canada and Australia, so there could be a scenario where the BBC could, theoretically, end up with more money from subscription if it was offered worldwide as a streaming service like Netflix or Amazon Prime rather than operating as a traditional UK broadcaster.
Drama and comedy may well be well served but smaller domestic programming, particularly expensive series like Strictly Come Dancing, may well find that BBC's bosses are no longer willing to invest in a show that just appeals to UK audiences.
The ultimate insult would be if we bought in the US version Dancing With The Stars instead. Be careful what you wish for.