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Have we got license fees for you

It’s well worth anyone who works at the BBC looking at the BBC News talkback from viewers on whether the TV licence fee be increased. By and large, the viewers are opposed to the increases – perhaps unsurprisingly.

But it’s interesting how the same old nonsense is trotted out by viewers. Let’s look at a few of the myths:

They should be made to compete in the open market like ITV.

This, of course, would be the last thing that ITV would like. If the BBC was competing with it for advertising revenues, the effect would be to almost instantly halve ITV’s income – thus destroying it. And, of course, the amount that the BBC would get wouldn’t cover its own budget. Total net TV advertising revenues, split across all channels, was £3.4 billion in 2004 according to Ofcom (ITV’s total of this is about £600 million). In the same year, the BBC allocated roughly £2.3 billion to television alone across all its channels – which gives you an idea of just how advertising revenue it would have to take from the current commercial channels in order to retain its current programme making strength. The only other option would be to cut back its programme making budget drastically – which would, of course, mean more repeats and less original programmes, which is the exact opposite of what the audience consistently says it wants.

The licence should be scrapped and the BBC made more accountable, it’s almost like a government dept, wasting taxpayers money.

The BBC, of course, is not a department of the government, which has no say in its running beyond making appointments to its most senior managment.

Stop paying staff so much money and spend the licence
fee on better programmes if they don’t like it tell them to get another
job. Most people don’t get paid anywhere near Wogan.

Neither, of course, do most people at the BBC. In fact, the majority of people I’ve met who work there get less than the going market average for their job. There are, of course, other tangible benefits – the BBC pension scheme, for example, is excellent – but mostly they work there because of the public service aspect of the place.

Scrapping the BBC would improve the quality of private
broadcasters due to the decreased competition. All the best TV is from
America and is privately funded.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen the argument that a lack of competition improves quality. I’d certainly suggest that the writer go watch some old Soviet-era Russian TV, where competition was barred and quality was, to put it mildly, minimal. And I’d suggest that he watch Fox News and compare it to either News 24 or even ITN News if he thinks that all the best TV is from America.

I have no problem paying for the BBC – its a unique
public service and Britain would be poorer without it. I object to
paying for BBC programming twice, though. The entire historic output of
the BBC should be free to Brits on the Internet.

A position I have a lot of sympathy for, but which – alas – is not that simple. There’s two issues here. The first is the issue of rights. People who make and appear in programmes have "rights", which means that if it’s repeated they’re entitled to a fee. Not much – but over the course of an actor’s career, these rights can amount to a lot of money. Now if you’re allowing people to download programmes for free, how much money do you pass on to those actors? The BBC would like to do this, and is at the moment spending a lot of time and money on working out how to through efforts like the Interactive Media Player and Creative Archive.

The second issue is more difficult. The government has, for a while, been keen on supporting the independent television industry by ensuring that a proportion of the BBC’s money goes to independent TV makers – hence those "A Joe Blogs Production in association with BBC Wales" type of credits at the ends of programmes. In fact, the government insists at present that around 25% of the BBC’s output on its main channels is outsourced.

All well and good, but it means one problem: The BBC doesn’t actually own everything that goes out on its channels. Copyright resides with the production company, or is split between production company and BBC – which in turn means the BBC only has limited rights to show the programme, usually repeated for free within a strictly-set window after first showing. Any more showings, and the BBC has to pay more. And, of course, allowing people to download the content would cost more. A lot more.

Why oh why can’t the BBC be paid out of central
government taxes. Then it would be paid through our ability to
spend/pay. The argument that it would be under government control does
not wash, as it is the government that sets the License Fee.

First of all, it would end the arms-length relationship between government and BBC that allows the government its indepence. Secondly, it would mean that the BBC budget would be subject to direct political interferance: do a Panorama about how Tony Blair was a weasel, and you can bet that next year’s budget for news would be cut.

There is no need to venture into territory that is more
than adequately covered by commercial television companies. They should
be putting all their money into making quality programs for BBC 1 &
2 only.

Ironically, the reverse would be true: ITV does a decent job of competing with BBC1, while C4 and (increasingly) C5 are doing excellent work on minority programming and documentaries (despite it’s low-rent reputation, C5 has done some very good documentary TV of late). BBC 1 and 2 would be the first for the chop if you decided that the BBC could only cover non-commercial territory – and under that system, the BBC would become a minority set of channels, and critics would justifiably ask why everyone had to pay for them.

I find it hard to understand why some
programmes are screened on digital TV first as this forces people to
pay a premium for the box to receive programs they have sponsored

Part of the remit for the digital channels is to experiment with low-budget programmes that might prove to be popular, but might not. They allow a higher level of risk than terrestrial channels, so that programmes like Little Britain can find an audience without the kind of major promotional budget that they’d need for BBC’s 1 or 2.

And finally…

How about scraping it? We are fed up with being taxed for everything we do in life!

How about you grow up and realise that everything in life has to be paid for?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lee Maguire

    I notice you brush aside the idea that the BBC should be funded through progressive taxation rather than a flat tax, by suggesting that this would inevitably lead to governmental control over BBC budgeting.

    But does that really have to be the case? Is it inconcievable that the “arms-length” relationship could still be preserved via an alternative funding model?

  • http://technovia.typepad.com Ian Betteridge

    First of all, any such tax would have to be collected by the Inland Revenue: No other public body has the ability to do it. This would mean it would have to be a general part of your tax money, not shown differently from the general tax – which means it would be effectively invisible to the tax payer. Once invisible, it would, effectively, just be viewed as general government funding.

    You could, of course, have it as a seperate tax item appearing on your pay slip. However, this would be immensely costly to collect, as it would require reworking every tax system and accounting system in the country, along with the design of every pay slip and every payroll database.

  • nick

    All the best TV is from America and is privately funded.

    LOL. Invariably that’s from people who think that American TV comprises only the programmes that make it across the pond. Er, no.

    And, of course, HBO is responsible for a lot of those groundbreaking series. That would be a network that shows no ads, and works on a subscription model. You pay about 60% of the BBC licence fee (c. $140) to get HBO alone. And you can’t get HBO without paying base monthly cable/satellite fees. (My annual cable bill? $720. That’s over £400, and I don’t get HBO.)

    As for the notion that the BBC should get out of direct competition with the networks? That way lies po-faced PBS, complete with bi-monthly begathons and endless repeats of ‘Are You Being Served?’

    If you haven’t lived outside the UK, you really don’t know how good it is. It’s a life-line to me.

  • http://jonathanbaldwin.blogspot.com Jonathan Baldwin

    Damn, this is the blog entry I spent all day composing in my head. Oh well, I’ll just link to yours instead…

    One thing that made me laugh this morning was the way the stroy was reported in the tabloid papers with some sort of bidding war about the highest amount they could say we would be paying – in the future, mind.

    I worked out that the Daily Mail, BBC hater extrodinaire, costs more per year than the license fee and is still heavily subsidised by advertising. OK, so we don’t get a choice about paying the license fee but considering what we get it’s worth it.

    One of the things that gets missed out of all this is the way the BBC acts as a crucible for creative talent: writers have a ready market for their work through BBC radio, there’s a fairly open reading policy for unsolicited scripts, and the money poured into the creative industries is enormous. In economic terms alone, the BBC generates more income for the UK than the amount poured into it – and intangible benefits such as peception of the UK abroad that is worth more to us than any number of royal visits or ‘expos’.

    My £10 a month (wow – a massive amount. Not) has a huge effect on the cultural and creative environment way beyond the immediate cost to me.

    However, I would say at the moment I’m rarely watching the BBC and seem to be permanently on Hallmark for law and order and House every night, then it’ll be Sky for Stargate and Battlestar Galctica. And I’ve just bought season six of the West Wing because I can’t be bothered to wait for Channel 4 to pull their finger out. US television (or at least the bits we get to see) is rather good at the moment and if I’ve got a criticism of the UK drama and comedy model it’s that the seasons are too short – six episodes isn’t long enough for character development or emotional investment (for me, anyway).

    But TV aside, this year I went to several Proms, dead cheap, heard performances of music (rock, classical) that otherwise wouldn’t get an airing, saw a BBC film that most studios wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole, and saw and heard news stories that were missed elsewhere and documentaries that put world experts in my living room to discuss the issues of the day instead of Richard Bloody Littlejohn and his ilk. That’s something commercial TV, unfettered by public service commitments, would never offer.

  • Lee Maguire

    “Once invisible, it would, effectively, just be viewed as general government funding.”

    So? There can’t be that many people outside of the BBC who actually think that a statutory mandatory subscription to something of public benefit is that far removed from, what the layman understands to be, a tax. What does visibility actually buy you? The public doesn’t decide Auntie’s budget, the government does.

    Does the BBC’s independence stem solely from this semantic sleight of hand? Is it worth slinging single mothers into gaol to defend it?

    Isn’t there some other method of legally enshrining independence, like, I don’t know, a “charter”?

    Using the IR would of course be the most efficient and fair way of collecting BBC funding. After all, how much is wasted issuing licence certificates, and paying jackbooted thugs to search unlicenced homes for TV tuners (which will become difficult when they’re the size of USB dongles).

    And if you’re concern is about people not knowing exactly how much they’re paying to various things from their taxes – maybe that could easily be done through the web. If it doesn’t already exist, it sounds like a job for mySociety.org, no?

    Plug in your (council|income) tax amount, subscribe to an RSS feed that tells you exactly how much you spent on helicopter fuel, particle physics research and school dinners that day.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/AndrewNZ/ AndrewNZ

    As Nick said, if you haven’t lived outside the UK, you really don’t have a clue how lucky you are. TV here in NZ is rubbish, with the national broadcaster dependent on adverts. Most of their content is bought in – especially news, which is less surprising in a small country, I suppose.

    I think the BBC should have experimented with their feedback form for this article and required commenters to indicate which newspaper they read. Wonder how many Daily Mail/Murdoch readers would be the source of the daft BBC bashing comments?

  • irishman

    RTE has a licence fee & adverts. its programs are just above average. but not half as good as the bbc. €155 or £105, dear enough for 2 and a bit channels and 2 and a bit radio channels.

  • http://www.thebevinsociety.com pete w

    I see no mention here of the reason for this increase in the licence fee, government policy. The government has decided to turn the analogue signal off and transfer everything over to digital. This requires massive investment in infrastructure and, dare I say is, public information, to ensure the changeover goes smoothly. So blaming the BBC for government policy seems a bit daft.

    Also, if we didn’t have the BBC would we not end up paying for another monoploy broadcaster-SKY. I doubt very much doubt that ITV wpuld have anywhere near the kind of clout to compete with SKY.

  • http://mildlydiverting.blogspot.com/ k

    “First of all, it would end the arms-length relationship between government and BBC that allows the government its indepence.”

    I rather like thinking of it that way round… :-)

  • http://www.grahamstull.com/rte.htm Graham

    British people may be interested in my analysis of why the Irish TV licence has to go. Follow the link: