COMMENT: 'As another 2m viewers abandon the BBC it's vital the licence fee is abolished and the corporation refocuses its efforts on original quality TV'

After nearly two million people told the BBC they no longer required a licence fee last year due to the growth in streaming services and the ruinous £159 cost of the licence, it is vital the corporation undergoes radical change, writes Gary Shipton, National World weekly titles Editor-in-Chief.

By Gary Shipton
Friday, 15th July 2022, 1:12 pm

According to TV Licensing’s annual report, 1.96m households said they did not watch the BBC or other live television in 2021-22 and the corporation believes even more will desert them this year.

If the BBC is to survive, it is vital the licence fee is abolished, a new voluntary funding model is created and the corporation focuses its efforts on producing quality, original TV it can sell around the world. In a cost-of-living crisis, the status quo is not only unacceptable it is totally unsustainable.

As research demonstrates, more and more of the television output of the BBC is dominated by repeats –especially outside prime-time on BBC1.

The BBC headquarters building in Portland Place, London. Picture: stock.adobe.com

A snapshot of a week’s scheduling across the corporation’s four TV channels in late June found most programmes on BBC Two, Three and Four were repeats, with little new for viewers to watch.

Our analysis reveals 52 per cent of airtime on BBC Two in the week ending June 24 was spent broadcasting re-runs. This rose to 85 per cent and 87 per cent on BBC Three and BBC Four respectively.

The BBC was once synonymous with quality, originality and world-beating television – reaching a peak in the 1970s and early ’80s, when nearly half the British population would tune in to its top-rated shows.

However, the guarantee of a criminally enforceable tax to fund it, known as the licence fee, has given it a complacency which has allowed it to spread itself too thinly at a time when consumer choice from other providers has never been greater. It is a lethal combination.

It has too many TV channels, radio channels and websites and has never had to justify anything to the punters who must pay for it.

They have absolutely no choice in the matter – if they want live TV from any provider, they still have to cough up for the licence fee. It’s like telling every Guardian newspaper reader they must first buy a copy of the Daily Mail – and vice versa.

What worked well half a century ago is a model that is no longer fit for purpose. There has never been a bigger choice of viewing – everything from YouTube to Netflix and Prime – and a younger audience is increasingly turning its back on Auntie, as the corporation was once affectionately known.

It’s true, the network still has some big hitters – not least, its natural history programmes from the Father of the Nation, Sir David Attenborough.

But its superb satirical comedy W1A rather nailed the problem. It is now so consumed with navel gazing and big corporate nonsense, it has rather forgotten what it is and who it serves.

Opposition to licence fee

A survey conducted by your Chad and our sister titles last year revealed an overwhelming majority of the public were opposed to the compulsory TV licence fee.

When asked if the BBC licence fee should remain compulsory, 95 per cent of the 16,500 respondents answered ‘no’, with just 5 per cent saying ‘yes’.

Respondents also favoured an ‘opt-in’ service when this additional question was put to them, with 61 per cent backing a system where you would only pay for the BBC services you consume, compared with 32 per cent who were opposed and 7 per cent who were unsure.

On the question of whether the BBC represented good value for money, 93 per cent of respondents answered ‘no’, compared with 5 per cent who believed it did, and 2 per cent who were unsure.

As the number of repeats grows and the younger generation in particular looks for visual entertainment elsewhere, the issue will become more acute.

We are facing tough economic times. They will not pass quickly. The public must be liberated from an annual £159 tax for a service which is increasingly seen as very poor value for money.

The BBC defends itself and is rightly proud of its output that remains original.

As a critical friend, who remembers with nothing but affection the glory days of the Beeb, I want it to survive and flourish.

For it to achieve that, it needs a new funding model where it is free to compete against the likes of the commercial streaming services and it must radically redefine and consolidate its offering – its focus should be two TV channels packed with original programming, key national radio and its terrific local radio stations, which continue to do a great job despite tough financial pressures.

Beyond that, it should only build standalone services where it can compete with other commercial players and do so with them on a level playing field, rather than requiring taxpayer subsidy.

Politicians frequently attack the BBC for political bias. I do not share that view. The BBC is a great institution, but it will not survive for much longer in its current form.

The licence fee must go, new subscription and pay as you watch subscription services developed, many of its platforms dispensed with, and it must be given the freedom to focus on new and innovative ways to provide quality programming which will once again be the envy of the world.

How the licence fee works

Currently, anyone who wants to watch live TV, regardless of whether they consume BBC services, must pay £159 for a standard colour TV licence and £53.50 for a black and white licence.

If your household does not have a TV licence and you watch or record programmes as they are being broadcast on TV, or watch any programmes on iPlayer, then you are breaking the law.