Change the licence fee? Don’t be so short-sighted

It seems the BBC can’t go a single week without having to defend itself from some form of criticism. Last week it was news that BBC apps have been given the all-clear by the BBC Trust, irking commercial outlets, and this week a thinktank has decided that the licence fee should be replaced with a subscription service.

The Adam Smith Institute’s arguments for getting rid of the licence fee in favour of a subscription model doesn’t sit at all comfortably with me. For a start, there seems to be a contradiction unraveling among attitudes of the BBC and Sky. Last week BSkyB was castrated for signing up the whole of HBO’s catalogue and putting it firmly behind a paywall. Now the BBC are being encouraged to do the same with its own home-grown content.

Further complaints arise from competing broadcasters. The likes of ITV and Channel 4 seem to harbour sour grapes over the BBC’s regular source of income, and yet can you really blame audiences for passing on another Katie Price reality show? If the licence fee becomes an optional thing, and there is a fall in funding – inevitable when you consider that people don’t want to pay for anything these days – then we can only expect more cheap, low-brow programming resulting in a vast dumbing down of British culture and society.

I’m not saying that the BBC is without its issues. Overpaid executives and underpaid staff (well, those whose faces we don’t see on the screen) are just a couple of the problems that put the way the BBC is run into question, but in no way should these concerns contribute to the thinking that the BBC should be culled. The BBC remains the best broadcaster in the world (and as it stands, probably one of the UK’s most valuable cultural exports), and it is only through the licence fee that this is possible.

The BBC’s greatest defence remains its programming, across both television and radio. Perhaps there is room in the argument that the licence fee is archaic and punishes the poorest families that cannot budget the yearly expense of the fee. Like most systems in the UK, it is not perfect. But the moment the licence fee becomes an optional purchase, as the ASI proposes, is the moment the BBC loses its ability to innovate and further cultural horizons.

Ex-Panorama producer, David Graham – author of the report – would be wise to consider how programmes such as Panorama would be affected without the kind of guaranteed financial provision that the licence fee offers. I would be willing to bet that funding for such strands would tumble, if his subscription concept was implemented at the BBC.

Photo by Flickr user ell brown, licenced under Creative Commons.

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