Would alternative funding pay for specialised programmes? 

8 March 2004 tbs.pm/667

Majority ‘want change to TV fee’ says ICM/Panorama poll

According to the BBC’s own research, aired on Sunday in “What’s the Point of the BBC?”, 70% of people in the UK (not necessarily viewers, by the way) would like the Corporation to be funded by advertising (31%) or subscription (36%), while only 31% are happy with the present licence fee. Perhaps this is not surprising: I can’t imagine many people understand why the licence fee is an important part of maintaining the BBC’s independence from the Government of the day.

At the same time, 58% say that BBC programming is too similar to that available from commercial broadcasters, and distinguished commentators like former BBC2 Controller Sir David Attenborough feel that the BBC doesn’t produce enough specialised programmes.

Well, certainly, I would be the first to agree that the Corporation relies too much on the products of inveterate BBC-basher Peter Bazalgette of Endemol (who might care to be a little nicer to the people who write much of his paycheque) and his ilk. But would an alternatively-funded BBC be able to focus more on specialised programing that the commercial stations wouldn’t touch?

The simple answer is no. Because these alternative proposals offer funding that is proportional to popularity. Specialised, high-quality programming of the type that both Sir David and myself would like to see from the BBC in place of Mr Bazalgette’s offerings is not of the kind that delivers high ratings, and neither is it cheap. If the BBC was even more reliant on ratings to derive its income (either via advertising or subscription) then the chances of it having the additional money to make specialised programmes – and cut back on the commercial-TV-like shows that people apparently want to watch – seem to me to be minimal.

At present, the BBC’s desire to gain high ratings is fuelled, especially in the present climate, by a need to show that it is justifying its income from the members of the public who pay for a licence. It is also, in fact, necessary for the BBC to have a sizeable market share for it to be able to set standards in the industry and provide a central function in our democracy.

If the population at large feels that the Corporation should be producing more, less-popular programming instead, then that requires additional public funding, not less. Because quite evidently people don’t want to pay for it. Those who feel that the BBC should be funded by subscription are presumably at least partly those who would like to avoid paying for it now – would they pay for a more specialised output then? Meanwhile, those who favour advertising – the least acceptable solution in my view – probably believe that ‘commercialising’ BBC television would make it “free”, whereas in fact they would simply be paying for it in the supermarket instead, whether they watched or not. In both cases, more income is achieved by maximising popularity, not by producing more specialised, high-quality programmes and less pap. Where would the money come from?

And while funding the BBC from subscriptions would probably be about as efficient as the present licence fee system overall, funding from advertising would be markedly less so. In addition to paying for the channels, the income has to pay the ad sales staff and offices, the people making the commercials… you name it. Getting money out of people to pay for something directly is almost guaranteed to be cheaper than ‘indirect’ funding, unless you organise it really badly.

There is something to be said for a method of paying for the BBC that allows it to focus more on doing programmes that need to be done even if they don’t get vast ratings – Sir John Reith’s idea of giving people “what they don’t yet know they need” – instead of needing to justify itself all the time by feeling obliged to make ‘popular’ programmes that are just like everyone else’s. That’s one bad thing about the licence fee system, especially in a climate where Beeb-bashing seems to be the norm.

Unfortunately, the seemingly-attractive alternatives appear even worse. Has anyone got any other ideas? Well, there’s the Tories’ Public Broadcasting Authority, but that plan requires the BBC to have been sold off first, so it doesn’t really count…

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me

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