Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Who should pay for the BBC?

The withdrawal of free television licences for over 75s should really be looked at in terms of how the BBC should raise money in the first place. At present there is a universal flat rate tax on televisions with some exemptions. What matters is not so much who is exempted as whether this method of revenue raising makes any sense in a world with so many television providers.

 There are really three methods by which a television company can raise revenue.


2. Subscription.

3. Advertising.

The BBC uses taxation. ITV uses advertising. Sky uses subscription, advertising or a mixture of subscription and advertising. It would also be possible to rely on donation. This works for some media organisations, the Guardian springs to mind, but it is hard to imagine the BBC being able to raise anything like its present revenue by means of donation.

I don’t watch much television, but I know that it is important for many people, especially older people who might be living on their own. The BBC has faults. I find it to have a soft left, PC tone. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of BBC employees and presenters vote for left of centre parties and support staying in the EU. I find much of BBC output to be unintelligent, but I also recognise that on national occasions we all turn to the BBC and that it would be a great pity if it didn’t survive.

Thirty of forty years ago the licence fee made a certain sense. There were only three channels and almost anyone who owned a TV would watch a lot of the BBC. Funding could have come from Central Government by means of a grant, but it would still in the end have been coming from taxation. Nothing is free.

Today however it is possible to watch “TV” online. There are endless satellite or cable channels and it is easy to imagine someone who has to pay for a TV licence rarely if ever watching the BBC.  It could well be argued that this is no different from healthy people having to pay for the NHS or childless people having to pay for schools. We all pay for things through taxation that we personally don’t use. But is a TV licence the most cost-effective way of raising revenue?

Why doesn’t the BBC offer a subscription model of raising revenue? It is clearly possible for it to do so. If Sky can charge viewers to watch its programmes, then the BBC could do so also. The advantage of this method of raising revenue would be that there would be no need for TV detector vans to roam the country looking for licence fee dodgers. There would be no need to take people to court for failing to pay their licence.

It would also be possible to partially fund the BBC through advertising. At present between its programmes the BBC has a long “break” where it advertises its own programmes and services. This could easily be replaced with real paid advertising. Within programmes their need be no breaks, just as at present. Would anyone mind? Some might say that this make the BBC vulgar and commercial? But much of its output is already commercial and indistinguishable from ITV. I believe no one would mind adverts between BBC programmes.  

It is also important that the BBC slims down. There is no need whatever for it to fund such large numbers of channels and websites. It is also unnecessary for an organization that depends on taxation revenue to pay presenters and executives huge salaries. Presenters become famous and popular because they work for the BBC. It would not be especially difficult to find someone else to read the news, argue with politicians or talk about football for far less than is spent at present.

If the BBC were funded by a mixture of advertising and subscription it would have to care more than at present that it provided programmes that people wanted to watch and viewpoints that more accurately reflect those in the country. It could provide a core service of two TV channels and four radio stations. It could have a single online news and weather service. It could learn to live within its means.

The cost of paying for the BBC could in this way be reduced, so that it would no longer be a problem either for the BBC or the Government to give “free” subscriptions to the elderly. The benefit of doing so in terms of providing vulnerable people with the television they rely on, would far outweigh the relatively trivial cost of doing so.

In a few years a television and a computer will be indistinguishable. Each will stream television over the Internet. There will be no more televisions to tax. Change is coming whether the BBC wants it or not. Now is the time to find a sustainable long-term model of funding that safeguards what the BBC does best. The fact that it could keep television free for the over 75s at the expense of overpaid and hypocritical social-justice warriors like Gary Lineker would just be a bonus.


  1. I wonder if you have really thought through your subscription proposition. Sky does, as you say, use a subscription model, BUT supplemented by exclusion - if you don't pay your sub you don't get to watch (on at least most of their channels). The subscription therefore is anything but "voluntary" - in fact it could be said to be an even harder form of licencing in that it is possible (though not advisable) to watch the BBC without a licence. Not at Sky you dont!
    And if the BBC goes for advertising, what do you think is going to happen to rates, at, for instance, ITV. You have just increased supply (significantly!), so with stable demand the price is going to drop isn't it? All you have done is spread TV revenue a bit more thinly, with the possibility of lowering standards all round because of the decline in income. More pap from the USA maybe? More cheap game shows?
    And, why should the BBC slim down? Look at the number of Channels that Sky puts on? Some at least of the BBC channels (eg BBC 3) are experimental (it is exploring offering TV via the net rather than air) or meet niche needs that the market couldn't be bothered with.
    There are lots of things wrong with the BBC - we might even agree one or two (though not all) - but might I suggest that your obvious distaste for Gary Lineker has got the better of you?

  2. Sky also depends on taxation. Mr. Rupert Murdoch has so arranged matters that the BBC has to pay him for rebroadcasting their programming. Consequently, if you watch a BBC programme on Sky, you have in effect paid for it three times: once through the licence fee, once through your Sky subscription, and, in addition, via the charge that Mr. Murdoch levies on the BBC.

  3. I worked for the BBC, and still have friends there. The basic ethos, despite the invasion of rampant managerialism and the proliferation of useless suits, is clubabble Tory. Other stances are tolerated, which may cause persons of a polemical temperament to fixate on those elements to which they themselves are opposed.