Clare Sumner, Director of Policy at the BBC, has called for a radical reappraisal of the role the Corporation plays in shaping the wider broadcast market to inform the debate about its future.
Delivering a keynote speech – The evolving role of the BBC – to the Westminster Media Forum policy conference on ‘The future of the BBC -purpose, impact, funding and oversight’, Sumner noted that the BBC’s next key milestone was how it approached the licence fee settlement with the Government for April 2022, suggesting that any debate about the BBC always tends to focus quite quickly on the licence fee.
“But too often it gets caught up on the question of how the BBC is funded, and ignores the question of why,” she contended. “In other words, what is it that our current funding model delivers for UK audiences, and for the UK as a whole,” she asked.
According to Sumner, the licence fee exists because it’s a sure-fire way to guarantee universal access to the BBC’s programmes and services – to make sure they’re available to everyone. “It makes us directly accountable to the whole country. Because all audiences pay for us, we have to work hard to make sure all audiences get value from us in return,” she admitted, suggesting that over the past year, the importance of universal public service broadcasting could hardly have been clearer.
For Sumner, one of the obvious benefits of universality is that it works on economies of scale. “We all contribute, so we’re all able to benefit from the BBC’s 10 TV services, 10 national radio stations, 39 local radio stations, plus everything on offer from iPlayer, BBC Sounds, the BBC website and more – all for just over £3 [€3.48] a week. It’s great value. The licence fee costs less in real terms now than it did a decade ago – and offers so much more. Each hour of BBC TV watched by a household costs it around 9p on average. For an equivalent SVoD service that’s around 15p, and for an equivalent pay-TV service it starts at well over 50p per hour,” she advised.
“A bundle of subscriptions providing advertising-free high-quality services comparable with those offered by BBC across video, audio and news would cost over £400 per year in comparison to a current licence fee of £157.50,” she asserted. “Great value is why we remain the most used media brand in the country, as well as the UK’s most-used public service.”
One major issue considered “vital” to play into the debate was the role of the BBC within the market, noting that recently, economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato, and her colleagues at University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose had released a new report – Creating and measuring dynamic public value at the BBC – on the topic.
According to Sumner, throughout its history, the BBC’s investment in the creative industries has fuelled innovation, grown new markets and borne new creative ecosystems – from the early days of radio through the birth of television channels, and to the launch of high-quality online services. “What we did with iPlayer blazed a trail for the global streamers and created a whole new market for video-on-demand,” she said.
Sumner noted that Mazzucato’s report argues that we need new ways of thinking about evaluation and regulation that recognise the truly dynamic role that the BBC plays in the economy and beyond and proposes a new framework for assessing value creation. “We will be looking at this carefully in the weeks and months ahead. We need a radical reappraisal of the role the BBC plays in shaping the wider market to inform the important debate we’ll be having about our future,” she confirmed.
She welcomed broadcast regulator Ofcom’s review of Public Service Broadcasting. “We agree we need modern, global, digital regulation to help meet the challenges of the current world we are in. We need prominence and inclusion legislation quickly and we need to future-proof it so we don’t go backwards when new innovations launch on the market and we then have to wait years to change the rules,” she stated.
“I welcome Ofcom’s commitment to work with the BBC to modernise the operating licence framework to focus more on outcomes for audiences than inputs. If we can do that it will be a great step forward. And I want to ensure that the pace of regulation can speed up in the market we are in. We also want Ofcom to continue to argue for the protection of universal funding for the nation’s biggest PSB – untampered with, and not top-sliced to pay for other priorities through contestable funds,” she declared.