It’s time for the BBC to be commercially funded

Samuel Prosser

March 31, 2021

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently released its report into the next BBC charter period, with the rather unambitious conclusion that the licence fee is here to stay in the absence of a viable alternative. The BBC naturally welcomed the support for another 10 years of guaranteed funding, despite polling showing a clear desire from the public for the fee to be scrapped.

The licence fee, costing £159 per year from April and charged against nearly 26 million TV licences in the UK, is a de facto poll tax that hits poorer families and single households the hardest, representing a much higher proportion of their income lost compared to wealthier households. Back in 1946 when the current licence was first introduced, TVs were a luxury item available to a more limited market. Nowadays, TVs are a basic staple of entertainment and virtually every household in the UK owns one. Is it really fair for the BBC to still charge for access to television content, the majority of which it does not produce?

The tactics of legal action used to pursue licence fee evasion further show the absurdity of the present system; nearly £60 million was spent last year on contractors pursuing non-payers through letters, visits from licence officers and criminal prosecutions are common, with one in ten of all cases prosecuted in magistrate courts pertaining to licence fee evasion, and the government has, of course, now folded on its plans to decriminalise licence fee non-payment.

Alternative forms of media like streaming services only strengthen the case for reform even more, as the BBC risks loosing younger viewers who may choose to opt out of television entirely; 16-24 year olds already spend more time watching Netflix than BBC TV and this trend is only set to continue. The DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP admitted herself that “the BBC TV licence fee has a limited shelf life in a digital media landscape”, yet the conclusion of this report shows there is still no real desire to implement reforms in any meaningful timeframe.

The BBC themselves have consistently spoken out against scrapping the licence fee, claiming it would give “less incentive to broadcast specialist or risk-taking programmes.” Ultimately, however, it should up to the consumer to decide what content they want to see as they are the ones funding the BBC so if there is not a demand for certain content then viewers should not be forced into paying for it. Besides, it’s not as if commercial funding makes providing specialist or risk-taking content impossible, as evident by the wealth of thought-provoking and controversial provided by broadcasters like Channel 4.

Plenty of other broadcasters are financially successful without having to rely on taxing the general public such as the commercial funding model used by ITV, where advertising revenue makes up the majority of funding supplemented by premium subscriptions, sponsorships and licensing.  This is the same model that is used by Channel 4, owned publicly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport but financed privately through commercial advertising, showing that the BBC does not even need to be fully privatised in order for a fairer funding method to be introduced.

Given the BBC is still primarily a traditional broadcast outlet, introducing advertising as its primary source of income, supplemented by a subscription service for BBC iPlayer, would be the easiest and fairest funding method for consumers. Adverts for the BBC’s own content already run in between programmes, so replacing this with commercial advertising would make little difference to the overall viewing experience, beyond a relatively minor annoyance.

The BBC produces many great programmes but it should have to earn its keep like any other broadcaster. At a time when many younger generations are moving away from traditional media broadcasts and using new services, the BBC should support its content based on its own merit, rather than trying to force all watchers into footing the bill.

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