by Stephen Tall on January 19, 2013
As a long-term critic of the BBC licence fee, one of the arguments in its defence which has always annoyed me is when an individual programme is highlighted as ‘worth the fee on its own’. That’s just hyperbollox… though I guess if viewers were actually willing to pay £145 for a series of Sherlock or a new David Attenborough wildlife documentary, then the economics of broadcasting would be a lot simpler.
David Elstein, chairman of openDemocracy, nails the argument well in his lecture, The licence fee is a fetter on the BBC:
Of course, the BBC continues to provide many excellent programmes – with £3.6 billion of annual licence fee revenue guaranteed, anything less would be unforgiveable.
He also points out again (for those in the metropolitan middle-classes who still, apparently, need it pointed out) the arrant unfairness of low-income households being forced to pay a compulsory annual levy for TV ownership:
The BBC is the only organisation allowed to convert a civil debt into a criminal conviction, as over 150,000 people find every year. The vast majority of these – as we know from the magistrates who rubber-stamp their convictions – are too poor or disorganised to manage full-year or even staged payments of the licence fee. … These 150,000 prosecutions constitute 30% of the non-indictable offences that crowd our magistrates’ courts – a cost borne by the taxpayer, not the BBC. … I now understand that, to avoid the unwelcome burden of these prosecutions on the court system, ministers are contemplating allowing the BBC to obtain a conviction simply by presenting evidence of evasion, without any actual hearing. Astonishing.
Crucially, converting to subscription would also allow the BBC to break free of the inexorable dumbing-down effect of the licence fee, as audience fragmentation forces a greater reliance on soaps in drama and so-called reality in factual programmes. The essence of the subscription model – as HBO has shown – is the opposite of the licence fee: emphasising the very highest quality, so as to command subscriber loyalty. For HBO, it doesn’t matter how much or little time a subscriber spends watching its service, as long as there is at least one programme which triggers a renewal of the monthly fee.
In the final analysis, the point of subscription funding is not just to end the persecution of the poorest, let alone to introduce some market mechanism just for the sake of it. The essential objective is to stimulate creativity and excellence, to appeal strongly to audiences rather than weakly, to motivate writers and performers and producers to aim high, and supplying the necessary budgets to achieve their objectives.
Kudoes to him, too, for responding to comments on the article, including this summary of his argument for abolishing the BBC licence fee:
I advocate a stronger BBC, not a weaker BBC (as is inevitable with continued reliance on the licence fee); a richer BBC, not a poorer one; a BBC fairly funded, not regressively funded; a BBC wholly independent of politicians rather than constantly at their mercy; a BBC which did not needlessly and cruelly criminalised 150,000 poor people every year; a BBC that did not clog up the court system at the expense of the taxpayer; and a BBC whose major public service radio channels continued to be freely available – along with all its genuinely public service TV output, such as news – to all listeners and viewers, whether or not they subscribed to the BBC’s entertainment channels.