Licence fee wins backing for 10 years

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The Independent Online

The Labour peer leading the government review of the future of the BBC has produced a report which suggests keeping the licence fee for 10 more years.

The Labour peer leading the government review of the future of the BBC has produced a report which suggests keeping the licence fee for 10 more years.

Lord Burns said his panel of media experts felt that the "balance of the debate" on whether the tax on viewers should be replaced by another funding mechanism lay "in favour of the licence fee for the time being".

But the panel, which approached rival broadcasters who had criticised the BBC's lack of a clear remit and its competitive stance, said it had also been "impressed" by the suggestion that there would come a time when the licence fee was no longer appropriate.

Speaking after the publication of the report, Lord Burns said the idea of the BBC having eventually to rely on subscriptions for funding was "sufficiently likely that it needs to be taken seriously". He recommended that funding questions be reviewed around 2011, halfway through the next charter period.

The Burns panel also raised the possibility of advertising appearing on the BBC. "Some advertising would help to sustain the provision of some services free at point of use and which do not exclude anyone," the report said. "And, conceptually, it is not clear why carrying advertising on television services is so different from other forms of commercial income, such as magazine publishing."

The panel - which includes Sly Bailey, the chief executive of Trinity Mirror, Alan Budd, the former chief adviser to the Treasury and Tim Gardam, the former director of television at Channel 4 - was set up in June of this year to "marshal the evidence" emerging from public consultations on the future of the BBC as part of the BBC charter review. The BBC's charter, its seventh since the broadcaster was established in 1922, comes to an end in 2006.

The BBC's remit needed to be more clearly defined in response to the changing television landscape, the panel said. It said that an "over-competitive BBC" could prevent a rival from making programmes that were of benefit to the public.

The growth of digital television would also create a market in which broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 would find it harder to produce "landmark" programmes, which benefited the public but did not generate income.

The corporation needed to find a balance, the panel said. "A diet of worthy television and radio, which simply fills in the gaps not provided by commercial suppliers and which only plays to small audiences because of a failure to engage, will not maintain the support the BBC has enjoyed."

The panel suggested that the BBC abandon areas of programming, such as makeover programmes and "certain types of game show", which it said could be shown on other channels. It also said it was not always appropriate for the BBC to try to poach "talent" from rivals if it was only going to reproduce similar programming.

The panel said that the BBC should continue to invest in comedy and that such "entertainment" should be included in definitions of what constituted public service broadcasting. "Narrative comedy is a cultural benefit that is under-provided in the commercial UK market."