Why the television licence fee must not be abolished
Now that we are almost certain to be leaving the EU by the end of this year, politicians will now turn their attention to other domestic issues that haven’t been addressed. One issue that has been raised, mainly because of the news that those over 75 not on pension benefits will have to pay their licence fee, is whether paying it should be decriminalised or even scrapped to be replaced by a subscription model like Netflix.
Boris Johnson has suggested that paying the licence fee should be decriminalised. Many say that this could pave the way for the licence fee to be abolished entirely. In this situation, the BBC would probably instead be funded in a similar way to Netflix.
The licence fee itself is currently guaranteed to the BBC under the Royal Charter until 2027, and negotiations on a new one won’t begin until 2022-2024. So if Boris Johnson’s government decides to abolish it, then it would be a long-term plan rather than a short-term one.
You only have to look across the pond to the United States, where channels are not required to report on news impartially. I found this website called Media Bias Fact Check which is a website that finds the extent to which media sources are politically leaning and how factual and trustworthy they are. It says FOX News is right-wing and sometimes factual, with CNN is left-wing and mostly factual. This compares with the BBC, which the site says slightly it has a slightly left-centre bias with high factual reporting.
This may seem like an obvious one, but the BBC (at least here in the UK) does not show any adverts, because of the way it’s funded. This means the BBC can take risks where other channels can’t – because they have to worry about viewer numbers as they rely on advertisers coughing up to make money.
Programmes that were considered “risks” that the BBC took on include Monty Python’s Flying Circus and more recently, Fleabag, both of which were huge successes when first released.
The BBC is well-known for broadcasting large events without having to care about sponsors or advertisers. The 2012 Olympics, both William and Harry’s royal weddings and funerals of national figures have all been broadcast live to the nation. And don’t forget the football World Cup where England got to the semi-finals…
None of these events would be the same if someone else, say, ITV or Channel 4, broadcast them on their channels instead.
Niche programmes for niche audiences
The BBC creates a lot of programmes that commercially aren’t viable but are very important culturally. Take BBC’s two Welsh radio channels, for example. There aren’t any major commercial competitors to that, because only half a million people speak Welsh. Yet the BBC still provides this service. Another example would be the “Asian Network” radio station (only available digitally.) Again, there is no other nationwide radio station like this.
And that’s just radio. I could also give you countless examples of TV programmes that commercial competitors will never produce because it will never get the high viewer numbers they want.
Alternative business models
Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have suggested that the BBC run with a subscription model, like Netflix does. There is one problem with this comparison: Netflix has $21.9 billion worth of debt. You could, of course, say that this model has worked with Amazon Prime, Apple TV+ and Disney+. But all three of these companies make huge profits, have deep pockets and can therefore afford to enter this market without borrowing money or making massive losses.
As we have seen from the scrapping of Victoria Derbyshire and other programmes such as Today in the firing line to pay for over-75s to have no licence fee, the BBC is not one of these organisations.
Since streaming services seem to be the future, BBC and ITV (along with, to a lesser extent, Channel 4 and Channel 5) launched a streaming service last year in the UK called BritBox. (It had been available in the USA since 2017 and Canada since early 2018.) It has 650,000 subscribers in the USA and Canada – and that number will grow as it (hopefully) expands across Europe and beyond.
ITV owns 90% of BritBox, with the BBC owning 10%, so it means the BBC doesn’t have to worry too much about the business side of things. Whether it also does well here in the UK, considering all BBC programmes can now be viewed on iPlayer for a year after broadcast, is still to be seen.
Partly as a result of the launch of BritBox in the UK, the BBC has also teamed up with production companies across Europe and beyond to make drama programmes that the BBC simply couldn’t make by itself, such as His Dark Materials (made with BBC Studios & HBO, the studio behind Game of Thrones) and World on Fire (made with Mammoth Productions along with a series of European production companies.)
At the risk of sounding like a Guardian editorial, I say this:
The BBC is a very valuable organisation. It is one-of-a-kind, and not many other countries have anything like it. They can make programmes that no other company will simply because it does not have to worry about commercial viability.
In the past, Dominic Cummings has suggested that the BBC should be replaced with a FOX News equivalent. Not only would this be wrong for all of the reasons I have stated above, but simply because it would break impartiality rules that all broadcasters have to abide by when reporting the news, as FOX News is clearly not impartial. Both ITV and Sky News do this very well, and Channel 4 does most of the time.
Those who say that the BBC hasn’t changed clearly needs to look at some of their new programmes. The Trial of Christine Keeler. World on Fire. His Dark Materials. All programmes that the BBC wouldn’t have made in the past, because they couldn’t afford it. The closest you would get to good high-budget drama is Doctor Who.
Keep the licence fee. It’s one-of-a kind.