Following the news that the licence fee will be frozen for two years, Robin Parker looks at where the BBC goes from here.
It’s rapidly becoming less a tactic than a matter of policy: whenever they’re in for a kicking, this government initiates Operation Bash the Beeb. Light flame, begin distraction, sit back and watch the press lap it up. Never mind that ITV News broke news of the parties; in keeping the story on the agenda, the BBC can be rendered equally culpable.
Meanwhile, the papers’ more rabid columnists boast how little of Auntie’s services they engage with for their 43p-a-day – which buys you around half a Daily Mail – conveniently ignoring how much they owe the corporation for raising their own profile on Question Time and Have I Got News For You.
The mandatory licence fee arises strong feelings on all sides and as with, say, the NHS, the argument boils down to whether you feel it’s a good thing for us all to chip in to support a universal service or let the market fight it out.
The latest proclamation of the death of the fee in 2027 – a punctuation point on years of death-by-a-thousand-cuts – comes at an interesting juncture for the Beeb. Next month, BBC Three bounces back into life as a TV channel four years after it moved online, with a doubling of its budget and a bespoke youth news show. It’s also 100 years since the first BBC broadcast and presenters from Konnie Huq to historian Greg Jenner and comics Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse will be riffing on its archive and legacy.
The end of an era (as Enfield and Whitehouse once declared of their creations Smashie and Nicey)? Up to a point. The BBC’s response to the pandemic, including its unprecedented commitment to home education output – proves that it can still be the glue of the nation. While it’s hard to imagine signing off on such a model today, the BBC still delivers popular hits from Green Planet to Strictly, Ghosts and Vigil despite stripping £1bn out of its budget since 2015. Yet further freezing of the licence fee is set to leave the corporation £285m a year poorer – around half of BBC2’s budget or four times that of BBC3. Something will have to give.
While it’s a fight for money, it’s also about relevance: 16-34s spend on average an hour on BBC services each day, less than half the 2 hours 23 minutes of a typical adult. And only half of them are watching a BBC channel in any given week; the Beeb exacerbates the issue by box-setting more and more of its shows – sometimes promoting them as available on iPlayer without even mentioning the linear channel. What chance does a linear BBC Three have in establishing BBC brand loyalty amid all this?
There’s hope. The protests are loud and many. Culture secretaries never hang around for long. Even Tory MPs would miss Countryfile/Call the Midwife/Radio 4, take your pick, if the BBC had to axe them.
Yes the BBC brings you the best in news, in sport, in drama, in music, in children’s, in science, in history, in entertainment, in current affairs and Sir David bloody Attenborough….but apart from that was has the BBC ever done for us? https://t.co/AZmIJeUbpy
— Gary Lineker ? (@GaryLineker) January 16, 2022
For the people who keep asking why Stargazing Live doesn’t happen any more, this is why. They just don’t have the money any more, and it’s because of this government. The BBC isn’t just BBC news, and this is a ludicrously short-sighted act of vandalism from a “Culture Secretary”. https://t.co/yGeN8OCEos
— Dara Ó Briain (@daraobriain) January 16, 2022
First you come for @channel4 because you don’t like its reporting of events. Now you come for the BBC because you don’t like its reporting of events. Have you ever considered whether it’s the events themselves that are the problem? https://t.co/T3P91H1Lzt
— Armando Iannucci (@Aiannucci) January 16, 2022
Young viewers still like BBC shows, even if they’re watching them on YouTube or Netflix, or listening to them on non-BBC podcast platforms. The unions will keep banging the drum for the corporation to keep taking a risk on the kind of talent that graduates to these other platforms, both behind-the-scenes and on screen.
The crux of the matter will be the obligation to pay for everything the BBC does, and the punishment for avoiding paying for it. Don’t expect the most clearly public service offerings – radio, news, children’s – to disappear overnight. It feels inevitable there will be a degree of voluntary, salary-linked or broadband-levy payment that will hold no appeal to some, but for many of us, it’s too important an asset to lose.
43p per day pic.twitter.com/MudpcnSyzM
— Dan Walker (@mrdanwalker) January 16, 2022