Dominic Lawson: Public-interest game shows? Rubbish

Why is it necessary for the BBC to wage war against ITV, or indeed Sky?

There is discord throughout every home in the land; and it's all the fault of the BBC. That, at least, is the claim of ITV, outraged by the BBC's decision to move the timing of Strictly Come Dancing so that it clashes head-on with X Factor.

Apparently these two talent-spotting programmes (please excuse me if this is an inadequate summary; I haven't seen either of them) are the most popular shows on British television; and so the BBC, by ensuring that they overlap, is risking domestic disharmony on a national scale, as millions fight over the remote control. Yes, I realise that families can always record one and watch the other live, if they own the necessary technology; but unless the BBC believed that its move would take audiences away from the rival X Factor, its schedulers would not have acted as they did.

Trivial though the precise subject matter might be, the row cuts right to the heart of the debate about the merits of having a public-sector broadcaster. Public service, in the widest sense, should exist where markets fail, to provide what free enterprise acting alone cannot. Do non-public sector channels fail to provide game shows and other forms of mass entertainment? On the contrary. So why is it necessary for the BBC to wage war against ITV (and, indeed, Sky) on this crowded battlefield?

The argument about when such programmes are scheduled by the BBC is merely a second-order issue, a consequence of an earlier decision. Once you have something like the BBC's light entertainment department, it will judge its own success or failure by the extent to which it gains bigger audiences than independent rivals. Viewing figures are its alpha and omega; artistic merit is merely the thinnest of icing on a very large cake.

There are those who attempt the argument that the BBC somehow has higher standards even within this demotic field; but since it spends hundreds of millions of pounds a year attempting to outbid commercial rivals for exactly the same popular US television shows, this claim can't be made with a straight face.

If the "market failure" argument were to be applied coherently, the BBC would have an unremittingly high-minded programme output. There would be no Radio 1, with all its prodigiously paid presenters (wooed away from commercial radio); instead there would be, let's say, a channel devoted entirely to serious debates, a kind of Intelligence Squared of the air. There would be another channel which broadcast nothing but actors reading fine novels aloud. Come to think of it, both of these would work as television programmes – and very cheap to produce.

There is only one argument against this, and it is based on the very way in which the BBC is paid for. Unlike general taxation, which draws much more heavily from the well-off (the richest one per cent pay about a quarter of all income tax), the licence fee is a poll-tax, costing the poorest as much as the most affluent. Almost 40 per cent of licence fee evaders come from the D/E socio-economic groups; the BBC knows that the best way it can minimise the chances of "can't pay, won't pay" riots against the licence fee poll-tax is if it provides pap for the proletariat.

It is partly for this reason that the BBC constantly reassures the public what good value for money the £145 a year licence fee is, with the unspoken implication that the same can't be said about the Sky TV packages. That may be true, but then – and I declare my interest as a Sunday Times contributor – imagine how much cheaper Rupert Murdoch's deal would be if he had the right to divide the costs between every family in the land, with the threat of imprisonment as the ultimate sanction against non-payment.

Dramatic changes to the way in which broadcast material is watched are in any case making this argument seem very much last-century. It is conventionally understood that the licence fee attaches to the use of a television set. Yet increasingly the public (and especially the younger among us) are watching broadcasts via a computer, or even a mobile phone.

The bizarrely anachronistic notion of a television licence fee is made clear if you think how you would respond if you were made to pay an extra £145 a year for the use of your computer as a recipient of broadcasts. In fact the BBC warns us that while "there is no separate [licence payment] enforcement policy regarding people using their computers, laptops, or any other device to watch TV, it forms part of our normal enforcement operation and TV Licensing has caught evaders watching television online". Teenagers of Britain, you have been warned.

I absolutely don't want to give the impression that I could happily live without anything provided by the BBC. I go to the Proms every year and listen to Radio 3 with a mixture of delight and occasional exasperation; BBC 2's Newsnight is essential for anyone with a professional interest in current affairs, as is Radio 4's Today programme. It is perhaps with these broadcasting institutions in mind that the BBC makes its claim to be worthy of the public's trust (and money). Yet these are the very institutions which are facing cuts in investment and journalistic budgets as the Corporation seeks to thrust its tentacles into an ever wider range of activities – it has even bought Lonely Planet, perhaps the first time in history that a travel guidebook publisher has been nationalised.

It is sometimes argued that this is all tolerable, because if the BBC didn't exist, then there would be no high-quality television at all; that the alternative would be the Americanisation of British broadcasting. I doubt it, somehow; after all, the absence of a state-funded supermarket chain has not led to British supermarkets becoming as bland and characterless as their US cousins. Chains such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer provide high-quality product within an entirely, and ferociously, commercial environment.

By way of analogy, Sky TV now offers four dedicated arts channels. Sure, you pay something for them; but then you also have the choice not to do so. That seems much fairer than being compelled to pay for Strictly Come Dancing.