Should we worry about the BBC?

In my last post, I mentioned a prediction that the BBC would lose its licence fee. Should we be worried?

Detractors say the licence fee is an anomaly these days, and it’s wrong to impose it on everyone. They point to the growing number of internet channels, which people may choose to watch instead of traditional viewing. Other channels complain that it gives the BBC an unfair advantage, since this gives them a level of funding they can depend on, rather than fighting for advertising revenue. Some individuals complain that £145.50 is a lot of money to find per year (and some I’ve talked to don’t realise there aren’t ads on the BBC). The BBC has also been criticised for inefficiency and complacency, and forcing it to be more commercial might force a more rigorous regime.

Arguments for the licence fee include that nothing better than the licence fee has yet been invented. It gives the BBC quite a lot of autonomy, while obliging it to provide ‘public service’. If the BBC went onto a subscription service, would viewers be able to choose certain bundles of programming? What about minority programming? Would it be like the NHS being unable to treat rare conditions? The UK is a small country; if the BBC had to compete for revenue, that might undermine its ability to compete with the big US channels, impoverishing our culture (and income from selling our programmes abroad). It might mean the BBC had to sell off some of its departments, or all of itself. Many of the big film and TV companies in the UK are already owned by big American corporations such as Sony and NBC Universal.

It seems there’s an uneasy tension between the government, who want to grant a licence fee at levels so low the BBC finds difficult, while requiring the BBC to innovate and provide more services. For instance, the BBC led the way globally in digital broadcasting, and was the first to add digital channels in this country, on no extra funding. The BBC does a lot to fund itself through programme sales, merchandising, and events, but this also means achieving a balance between public service and straight commerciality.

Personally, I think that while it’s good to review how things are done, there is a large element of change for change’s sake in the current government’s attitude to the media. The recent (and unnecessary) changes to copyright legislation have failed to improve anything. Unless there’s a proper plan for an alternative to the licence fee, why mess with it?