It’s hard to argue with the detractors of the BBC licence fee because of the arbitrary way it has been made mandatory for everyone watching live TV in the UK, regardless of whether they actually watch any BBC programming.

Personally, I watch BBC news and a smattering of other live BBC programmes. If I have the time for TV these days, I take advantage of Netflix or catchup TV from any of the free-to-air channels (no Sky TV in this household!). I highly rate most of the programming the BBC make, however, even though not all of its to my personal tastes, as the stuff I do watch – like news, dramas and documentaries – are such high quality and genuinely entertaining. 

But what I do find outdated in today’s world is to have a mandatory licence fee enforced on everyone. Yes, it’s a British institution, but in a free market economy if individuals had the choice of spending around £7 per month on Netflix or Amazon Prime, or around £14 per month on the BBC (which is roughly what the licence fee equates to now), I would imagine a large part of the population would opt to avoid the licence fee and just choose the channel package that best fits their viewing tastes. And that’s they key concept, isn’t it – we should have the option to choose. 

The politics

Now the Conservatives have unfettered power since winning the election and ditching the Liberal Democrats, John Whittingdale (the Conservative culture, media and sport secretary) has the BBC licence fee firmly in his sights (source: Guardian). But whilst Whittingdale may have a personal dislike for the either the BBC or its licence fee, there’s no public mandate for the attacks of this nature. If the Conservatives think they’re doing the British public a service by pushing this challenge, I think they’re mistaken. Perhaps more should be done to reduce the country’s foreign aid budget, which last year topped £11.7bn (source: Telegraph), particularly when we see some truly absurd ways in which they budget is spent. (Don’t even get me started on why we’re still funding India… a country with its own space programme!)

But, I still feel it would be a shame to see such a great British institution as the BBC, disappear. That’s not to say that reform wouldn’t be welcome though – see the solution below, for my suggestion options as to what could be better options. 

Over 75s

Whilst writing about the BBC, its also worth mentioning the reported change that now sees the BBC ‘paying’ for licence fees for over 75s (source: BBC). I object to it being termed in this way, because there’s no incremental cost for another person watching BBC TV. This is effectively just an accounting term because it was previously money received from the government and now they (the BBC) are being told that they’re not going to be receiving it any more. So, they’re not paying for these licences, they’re just not receiving money for them – which means there’s a gap in the finances. Perhaps it might prompt the BBC to reduce some of its bloat and stop commissioning some of its more popular culture programming (I’m thinking of the X-Factor challenger, the Voice – which I’ve seen reported as costing around £19m)? 

International freeloaders

The BBC should also look at how they can limit overseas viewers freely accessing their programming via iPlayer and VPNs. The scale of the problem can’t be truly known, but with some BBC programming being incredibly popular overseas (e.g. Top Gear and Downton Abbey), surely the corporation owes us, the fee paying public, to do more to commercialise it internationally.

The key issue here is that the online services are only restricted based on the IP address where the viewer is based, and as I mentioned earlier, a simple DNS change or use of a VPN can enable anyone overseas to watch this – without a single penny being contributed to the corporation. A subscription only service, despite its technological obstacles and cultural reluctance at home in the UK, might be a better option to limit this sort of activity. It’d be interesting to see any stats from the BBC or other bodies that might be able to estimate the scale of this freeloading and whether any projections have been made as to what the income could be from making this a subscription service.

The solution

Is there a best case scenario for the future for the BBC? Whatever happens, there’ll be groups of people that aren’t going to be pleased.

My personal view is that we should see a reduction in the licence fee to reflect a core set of public-service channels that avoid the populist programming the BBC seem to focus on more these days. On top of this, we should have the ability to subscribe to additional BBC channels, with an additional fee for iPlayer. 

In doing this, it gives consumers the option of picking the package of programming and distribution channels that best suits them. 

If the online service was subscription only, that should surely also help address the international freeloaders. And who knows, perhaps in doing so, the corporation could recoup some of their lost funding.

So, something like this structure might work:

  • BBC One, BBC Two, BBC News, BBC Radio 1 – 4 – Base level mandatory licence fee – £7 per month
  • BBC Three – £3 per month
  • BBC Four – £3 per month
  • BBC iPlayer – £5 per month
  • BBC Radio other/all channels (online only) – £2 per month

A full package could cost more than the current licence fee, but equally many could pay less by choosing the services that are relevant only to them. This solution obviously doesn’t take into account the mechanics of how such a system could be introduced, but from a pricing perspective, I think it’s inevitably fairer.

NB: I’ve not mentioned the BBC Parliament channel, as I honestly can’t believe anyone ever watches this! I’ve also not gone over the widely covered fat cat salaries, golden handcuffs/parachutes that are offered to BBC execs, as that’s old news and seemingly happening less these days?!

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