The BBC has unveiled a raft of new content exclusive to its revamped iPlayer service amid fears that channels such as CBBC and BBC4 could be at risk from new threats to the organisation’s ability to collect the licence fee.
Frankie Boyle, Micky Flanagan and Morgana Robinson, are among comedians those who will provide bespoke programming for the online service, which Director General Tony Hall described yesterday as “the best online television service in the world”. Historian Sir Max Hastings, artist Goldie and filmmaker Adam Curtis will also contribute content specifically for iPlayer.
But having decided to downgrade BBC3 to an iPlayer-only service in response to pressure on its funding, the BBC warned yesterday that possible Government plans to decriminalise evasion of the licence fee would threaten other services. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and Culture Secretary Maria Miller are both said to support the idea of making non-payment of the fee a civil offence.
At the launch of the revised iPlayer, James Purnell, the BBC’s Director of Strategy and Digital, said that decriminalisation could cost the BBC £200 million in income. “Say the rate of evasion was to double from five per cent now, that would be £200 million. That would be the equivalent of all of BBC4, all of CBeebies and all of CBBC,” he said. “Doing it like this very quickly would be a huge risk. The choice would then be that either we take those services off or the government would have to have a higher licence fee.”
Senior BBC figures yesterday rejected the idea that they might bow to a 200,000-strong celebrity-backed petition to reinstate to television the youth oriented channel BBC3, which Lord Hall predicted would do “some very, very new and creative things” as an iPlayer-only service.
But as the BBC encouraged more people to access its output via an iPlayer service that promises an enhanced user experience, there are concerns that the broadcaster will find it harder to make the case for its annual charge.
Colin Browne, chairman of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, said his organisation supported the fee but that the growth of iPlayer-only material weakened the BBC’s position. “It tends to undermine the case for the licence fee,” he said.
The licence fee only applies to live broadcasts and not for content viewed on-demand via iPlayer. Decriminalisation could increase the numbers of people who argue that they should not pay the £145.50 annual fee because they only watch BBC shows outside the schedule.
Mr Purnell said it was “for the government to decide” whether such catch-up viewing should be subject to the licence fee. “In 2004 the government decided that consumption of live TV on computers [should be] covered by the licence fee as well. We think that in principle it should be possible for catch up content to be covered as well, we think that would be a sensible modernisation.”
Users of the new iPlayer will be urged to sign up to ensure a personalised service that allows them to pause viewing of a show on one device and continue watching from the same point on a different media platform. But Ralph Rivera, the BBC’s Future Media Director, promised the BBC would operate a “gold standard” in managing user data.
Victoria Jay, head of iPlayer programming, announced three shortform dramas for the online service. Adam Curtis will explore the themes of hypocrisy, deception and corruption in a trilogy of films. Goldie will guide iPlayer viewers around the “Matisse: The Cut-Outs” exhibition at Tate Modern and Sir Max will curate a series of interviews with Great War survivors, filmed in the Sixties.
Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director television, defended the decision to give a platform to Boyle, who was dropped by Channel 4 following jokes that were deemed offensive. “We are not in the business of banning specific comedians because of jokes they have told elsewhere,” said Cohen.