There used to be an entire industry devoted to Kremlin watching during the Cold War, it’s a pastime that’s enjoying – if that’s the right word – a revival just now. The BBC bureaucracy has sometimes been compared to the Kremlin and defining, deducing or second guessing its next move sometimes seems as fraught.
Lord Hall, the DG, has dropped heavy hints that he, and presumably therefore the organisation, has completely bought into the notion that all TV is content and it is inexorably going online. And that this presents a lot of opportunities for re-packaging, and also for new forms of creativity and communication with the audience. But it also, in the long term, presents an existential threat to the historic role of mass-audience, linear FTA broadcast channels.
If you accept that conclusion, and it is not universally accepted, you have to accept there will be a growing resistance, as the generations go by, to paying for public broadcasting by a universal levy enforceable by the criminal law. Hall has said he sees iPlayer becoming the ‘front door’ to all BBC services, equally he has said it cannot remain a ‘free’ service. Why not, you might ask, when all it does is store and recycle BBC content already paid for by the licence? But now Hall sees it as being the exclusive conduit for whole channels (BBC3), home to debuting shows that may or not get broadcast, and the gateway to lots of affiliated services or organisations in education and the arts.
So, it must be paid for. I thought this was going to spin to increasing advocacy of extension of the licence fee (in some form) to iPlayer – beyond the current stipulation that you should pay it if you use iPlayer to watch channels ‘live’. But, over the weekend (Mar 8-9) two things emerged. 1. The government is seriously fed up with the clogging of the courts by licence fee non-payers. Incredibly 10 per cent (c.80,000) of all cases before magistrates are for this offence. And if fines (of up to £1,000) aren’t paid then offenders can go to jail – those incarcerated are usually the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. The government seems likely to move to make non-payment a civil rather than criminal offence. The BBC thinks this will cut 5 per cent to 10 per cent from its income. 2. An internal BBC study leaked; 12 independent expert panellists enlisted by James Purnell, the Labour minister turned BBC strategist, to free think, said that by 2020 the BBC should be funded by subscription.
Whether this should be a ‘membership’ type subscription or a ‘per service’ type is unclear. Indeed it is unclear whether this has surfaced in order to stimulate a discussion or to make government think about the reality and decide a licence fee isn’t so bad after all.
Regular readers may not have me down as an advocate of the licence fee. But that’s wrong. I am very much against its levy being criminally enforceable – handing out criminal records to those who don’t pay, 99 per cent of the time though genuine poverty and/or complete fecklessness, seems positively Dickensian. And I have been against many of the ways the licence has been spent; witness recent disasters over executive pay, pay-offs and DMI. I have also been long opposed to its land-grab attitude to every new means of distribution that comes along; it has never seen a media lawn it doesn’t want to park its tanks on. To say the BBC’s publicly-funded activities have not had a major negative effect on a range potentially viable commercial services across areas like publishing, local radio and is online news is simply silly.
But I have never said there shouldn’t be a universal fee for providing excellent public service broadcasting, the kind of broadcasting that won’t be provided by commercial broadcasters.
If the BBC becomes a voluntary subscription service, even more if it is pay as you go, it will join the market and it will supply what the market wants. That isn’t the same as what the market needs. Executives will say they now have a P+L and that justifies massive salaries, and users will get very vocal about not wanting to pay for any bits they don’t use.
The £3 billion+ the BBC receives (let’s assume it is fixed apart from inflation) is a lot of money. But it is also, at £145 a home, good value – part of what has turned the BBC onto subs its own research which shows (presumably by comparing what they get with Sky) most homes would value BBC services at about £400 a year.
If you keep the licence fee at its current level but have the BBC do only the things the market will not, (and that DOES include massive Marquee shows like Strictly or EastEnders or Sherlock that keep viewers in the BBC tent), but not the things the market will happily provide if the BBC got out of the way, then imagine how brilliant what it did do would be. It’s the quality, not the quantity, stupid.