Private eyes 

1 January 2005

Many people today complain that there is “nothing on television”, when they actually mean “the State is preventing me from having something to watch on television”.

The current set-up of television (and radio, for that matter) broadcasting in the UK is ridiculous. A State-owned corporation runs 8 television channels, two on the widely available terrestrial analogue service, funded by an indiscriminate and expensive tax on each household in the country.

A PLC runs a further 4 channels, one on terrestrial, with a commission of the “great and good” imposed over the heads of the management by the State to decide many aspects of policy.

A State-owned corporation runs a further suite of channels, one on terrestrial, with a State-appointed board imposing directives to provide programmes that don’t compete with the PLC.

Finally, a multinational private broadcaster owns one terrestrial channel, again with a commission imposed to decide aspects of policy.

It is therefore no wonder that there’s “nothing on television”: the dead hand of the State is ensuring that the people who would provide programmes people want to watch are unable to provide them.

The solution to this is a simple one. By completely deregulating television, you can ensure that there is something popular to watch at all times. By extension, privatising the BBC or even closing the State corporation and making its channel allocations available to anyone would also benefit viewers.

A 5-channel deregulated and private terrestrial service would bring great benefits to everyone.

  • The opportunity presented to business would provide money to the economy.
  • The staff of the hamstrung broadcasters would get creative freedom to produce popular television and even the freedom to escape the industry and pursue better careers.
  • The government would make money from selling the channel allocations and the privatisation of the BBC, plus save money from closing quangos like OfCom and the Advertising Standards Agency, and this windfall money could provide tax cuts to the population to enable them to invest in digital television and increase their choices.
  • Finally, the viewer would benefit from gaining popular television that would put an end to the “there’s nothing on” problem for good.

A private television system therefore would provide benefits for everyone and would remove the spectre of the licence fee draining money from the citizen’s wallet and finally put paid to the belief that only the “great and the good” can provide broadcasting that people will enjoy.

The resulting system would give everyone, free of charge, five channels that provide the most popular programming aimed at the entire audience all the time. The viewers would cease having to hunt for something to watch and instead would find that all channels had something the majority would watch at all times.

This system is democratic. Because the channels would need to provide programming for the majority, the programmes would have to specifically appeal to the majority. If the people want wall-to-wall reality, they will get it. If they don’t, they can always turn to a channel not providing it, or, if all channels were, simply switch off the television entirely.

The minority who require television to provide for them something the majority do not want – opera, documentaries, in depth news and the like – can spend their savings from the defunct licence fee on buying a digital package that provides unique channels that cater to each of these minority interests. If the minority who want such channels is too small, the channels will not prosper and the minority will seek their entertainment elsewhere.

The standard laws of the free market can apply to broadcasting just like they can apply anywhere else. The abolition of the licence fee puts over £120 directly back into the pocket of the viewer, allowing them to use it directly on a service of their choice or simply pocket the saving.

This is similar to how a privatised NHS will work – the massive amount of money saved in taxes can be spent on private treatment to order when required. Everyone benefits from not having to pay money to the government every year for a service they don’t necessarily use.

This also builds choice into the system. In broadcasting, the viewer gets the choice to enjoy the programming provided by the unfettered market; to upgrade to a better standard if they wish to spend their saving; or to switch off entirely. In the NHS, the patient gets the choice to enjoy proper medical care provided by the market; to upgrade to a better standard if they wish to spend their tax savings; or to not use the health care system if they choose not to use it.

At the moment, broadcasting is provided like streetlamps: the lamps are one whether you are using them or not; whether you wish to pay for them or not; whether they are providing you a service or not.

A private television system will operate like private streetlamps would: a penny in the slot gives you enough light for what you need to do without an involuntary subsidy from everyone when you don’t need it. If you don’t want to watch television, it costs you nothing to not watch it. If you don’t want a streetlamp, likewise. If you do want television, you get what the market provides or pay for extra on top. If you do want a streetlamp, you pay for it or use the light of the moon. If you want an always-on streetlamp, you pay the market price for it.

It’s a simple formula that can only provide the best for everyone. The majority want to watch reality TV – democratically, the majority must get what they want, so there will be reality TV. When the people bore of this, the market will provide an alternative. All it takes is the majority to show that they do not want reality TV, rather than some State commission effectively forcing it upon them by holding the reins of broadcasting.

The market will provide what the people want, and also break the hold that the programme chiefs, with their minority views, have on our screens. The spectre of a whole nation watching one programme and discussing it the next day – a tyranny of the programme chiefs and a betrayal of the concept of choice – will disappear.

Until the airwaves are free for the highest bidder to provide the programmes the majority want, until the people are set free to choose between popular programming on all five channels away from the heavy hand of the State, until the last vestiges of a system that decides what is best for the people rather than providing what the majority want are swept away, the British people do not live in a democracy.

Democracy demands that television is privatised and deregulated, because anything else leads to the control of a major industry in a small number of hands. A deregulated system ensures that the maximum number of people participate and that power is not concentrated in the hands of those the State feels know best for us.

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