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Sound and Vision: Dropping the BBC licence fee could do more harm than good

OPINION: There’s been plenty of big and breaking news over the last week, but the one of more concern for UK readers was news the BBC licence fee would be abolished when the broadcaster’s Royal Charter ends in 2027.

Announced, bafflingly, on social media rather than in the Commons, it was a move met with a familiar mix of indignation, disappointment, indifference, and befuddlement.

The idea, if there was one, is to bring the BBC’s service in line with modern times – amusing in the sense that the growth of online streaming is in part down to the introduction of iPlayer In 2007 – as well as draw attention to the means of enforcing payment, which seems to be for more political reasons.

To abolish the fee would subject the BBC to the same shifting sands and crashing tides as other competitors in the TV and online streaming market. While some may feel that is fair, the BBC is a public broadcaster and abolishing the license fee is tantamount to turning it into a private organisation. And I can’t help see that as a potentially destructive action.

I’m someone who pays the license fee or, more importantly, someone who can afford to pay the license fee. I may not watch the linear broadcast as much as I use to, but I use iPlayer regularly to watch various shows and catch up on programmes. Arguments against the license fee: that it is too expensive, that it funds shows you wouldn’t watch, ring rather false to me.

£159/annually works out to £13.25/month and I’m not just getting access to the BBC’s TV programming but all the radio, streaming and podcasts that they offer. I could argue I’m getting a mix of Netflix and Spotify in one package, and from that perspective it looks decent value.

The argument some make of BBC not producing programming they like is a subjective one. There is so much the BBC offers that there is a little something for everyone, and the broadcaster’s public funding and broad remit allows for this. If it were to turn to a subscription model, the breadth of its programming could be reduced, narrowing the choice and range of opinions it offers.

The BBC remains a source of high-quality programming, informing, and exposing viewers to new content. My interest in the NFL is mainly down to its weekly show, offering access that was not as readily available on terrestrial TV when I was younger unless I watched TransWorld Sport on Channel 4. The BBC offers access to a variety of things, and to potentially put it behind a stricter paywall is like putting a straitjacket on it.

To compare it to the likes of Netflix or Disney+ is not really an apple to oranges comparison. Netflix’s growth has meant taking on huge amounts of debt – in 2021 the figure stood at $18.51bn having borrowed $15bn since 2011. That’s sustainable if Netflix keeps growing, but subscriber growth has plateaued, and Netflix’s response has been to raise prices.

The system as is, is not perfect, and the lack of license fee payments from younger demographics is a sign the market has changed. But this is an audience far more used to getting things for free and how moving to a different payment model would somehow attract this audience is unclear to me.

Something does need to change but this move seems too drastic and politically motivated. It has the potential to do more harm than good to a fixture of British public life, a broadcaster envied by others and one we should celebrate than try to dismantle.

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