The BBC's future doesn't feature a licence fee – but is this really the way to ride the Netflix revolution?

Do you think young people who’ve grown up with YouTube won’t ask why they end up shelling out for a service they don’t use alongside sky-high rent and crippling student loan repayments? 

James Moore
Thursday 17 October 2019 12:58
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There are two possible interpretations that you can put on culture secretary Nicky Morgan telling MPs she was “open minded” about scrapping the BBC licence fee in favour of a Netflix-style subscription people would be able to opt out of.

The first is that she was throwing a bone to the hard right wing sect that now controls her party and that hates the BBC almost as much as it hates the EU. A cheap bone at that. The government has committed to maintain the corporation’s principal source of funding for the duration of the current 11-year charter period. That takes us to 2027. There mightn’t be a Tory Party left by that time. The way things are going, there mightn’t be a United Kingdom either.

The second interpretation, and this is the one that should make some of those among Auntie’s suits uncomfortable, is that she might have a point.

The licence fee, which is basically a poll tax, started to look anachronistic as soon as multi-channel pay TV had firmly established itself.

In the era of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the battle royale that’s about to take place between them and a rash of new competitors Disney Plus, Apple TV, HBO Max (Warner Bros), and so on it risks becoming a relic.

And don’t forget YouTube. If you have kids you can’t. It’s the first port of call for Generation Z. CBBC? What’s that again?

Do you think that young people who’ve grown up with self-created stars like DanTDM (who’s as hard working, personable and family friendly as any of the Beeb’s roster) won’t start to ask why they’re being asked to shell out for a service they don’t use alongside sky-high rent and crippling student loan repayments when they strike out on their own?

Sure, lots of people still watch Strictly and Doctor Who and EastEnders and suchlike. The Beeb’s dramas continue to have the capacity to create a buzz and everyone’s talking about David Attenborough’s latest.

Part of the rationale behind ITV pushing its own streaming venture is that British viewers seem to like British content like the aforementioned. Whether that will be enough to sustain BritBox remains to be seen. Its budget is tiny compared to those of the US giants. It will live or die by its library rather than on original content, at least in its early days.

But from the perspective of the BBC, BritBox is interesting. It’s involved in the venture, which has been up and running in the US and Canada for some time. But its support looks tepid. It has a small equity stake and will contribute content only after it has been up on the iPlayer for a year.

That said, through being only loosely involved, the BBC can dip its toe in the subscription waters without being carried down the river, while its partner takes all the risk.

We’re used to Auntie being portrayed as stuffy, slow moving, bureaucratic. But it also has some smart people and the way they’ve played BritBox looks smart.

While it might seem like heresy, I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least some at the corporation interested in exploring a subscription model more deeply, particularly if it would afford them more freedom, and leave them less in hock to Britain’s fairly detestable current political class.

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The implications would be far reaching, particularly for some of its less commercially viable output. You can start with Radio Four and move on from there.

If change is coming, it isn’t going to happen soon. It’s been made clear that wholesale reform of the TV licence isn't something high on the priority list for Morgan’s department.

By far the biggest political issue regarding the licence is whether rich pensioners should be asked to pay it alongside young people who are struggling to make ends meet with the meagre wages that first jobs tend to pay.

Morgan isn’t going to intervene in the BBC’s (correct) decision that they should.

But the debate about its long-term future isn’t going anyway and it’s only going to increase in intensity. The BBC would be wise to get ahead of it.

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