BBC in its current form ‘facing the end’

Toast: Once the favourite snack of the BBC’s famous Teletubbies. Now perhaps the BBC itself.

Should the BBC be another Netflix? Nicky Morgan, the UK culture secretary, wants a move to a subscription system, ending almost a century of public broadcasting funded by a licence fee.

This morning, there is a gathering sense of crisis at the world’s oldest, largest and – many would argue – most trusted, national broadcasting company.

Its respected director general Tony Hall has announced that he will be leaving. And in the sudden vacuum caused by his resignation, the enemies of the BBC have been quick to strike.

Boris Johnson’s top adviser Dominic Cummings wants the government to aim for the “end of the BBC in its current form and the legalisation of TV political advertising”, according to a story in the Guardian today.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind the scenes, there is enormous pressure for the BBC to embrace radical reform, slimming down its staff and becoming more commercial.

The corporation is at a crossroads, and the direction it chooses will have global significance for public service broadcasting.

A key question is how the BBC should be funded. At present, its money comes from the TV licence fee of £154 a year, which every UK household with a television is obliged by law to pay to watch BBC programmes live or to use BBC iPlayer.

This means that the BBC is free from commercial pressure, and can produce programmes about important subjects even if they do not attract large audiences.

It can also afford to have teams of reporters all over the world, underpinning its reputation as a global news service.

Many people in other countries trust the BBC more than their own national broadcasters.

As Tony Hall says, “In an era of fake news, we remain the gold standard of impartiality and truth.”

But many want to scrap the TV licence fee. They think it is outdated when many people only watch programmes on their computers, and that the BBC would be more efficient if it were a subscription service, forced to compete in the commercial market.

As things stand, it is struggling to keep up with rivals such as Netflix and Amazon, who are not only luring away its viewers, but poaching star writers and presenters by offering them huge contracts the BBC cannot afford.

Founded in 1922, the BBC started as a commercial radio company, but became a government corporation five years later. Its first director general, Lord Reith, famously declared that its mission was to “inform, educate and entertain”. It began broadcasting TV programmes in the 1930s.

But now, should the BBC become another Netflix?

Channel shopping

Some argue that the BBC is of vital importance not just to Britain, but to the world. It is a byword for high-quality, well-researched, impartial broadcasting. This is made possible by the TV licence fee, which means that it can cover important subjects in depth, free from commercial pressure. It can also take risks on shows such as Fleabag, which other broadcasters might pass over.

Others say that the BBC is lagging behind in the digital age. It is not as politically impartial as it likes to think. And it does not appeal to young people, who watch programmes online. It is ridiculous that everyone with a TV has to subsidise the BBC, even if they only use the TV for playing games: a subscription system would be much fairer, and allow it to take money from overseas viewers.

You Decide

  1. If you have an hour to watch something at home, what are your current three favourite choices? How many of them are from the BBC?
  2. To watch TV currently without a licence is a criminal offence in the UK. Is that fair?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are setting up a television station for your school to inform, educate and entertain. Invent 10 programmes, and draw up a day’s schedule.
  2. Sherlock, Dr Who, Killing Eve, Line of Duty – these are among the top BBC programmes of all time. You have 10 minutes to write a treatment for a new one!

Some People Say...

“He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for low standards which he will then satisfy.”

Lord Reith (1889-1971), first director general of the BBC

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Tony Hall has resigned as boss of the BBC. He will leave in six months’ time. The BBC employs more than 22,000 people. The TV licence fee is £154, and the law says that every household with a television must pay it. This system is guaranteed to continue until at least 2027. The BBC started as a commercial radio station. It has been a public-service broadcaster since 1927, and Lord Reith was its first director general. It began TV broadcasts in the 1930s.
What do we not know?
Whether the BBC will become a subscription service. We don’t know why Tony Hall has resigned, and why he has chosen this moment to do so. It is not known who will replace him. It is not clear what proportion of viewers are happy to pay the licence fee, or whether the BBC could survive without it. We can’t be sure if the BBC would be equally respected around the world were it not a public service broadcaster. Or whether, as the government claims, it has a left-wing bias.

Word Watch

TV licence fee
A TV licence is not required if you are only watching catch-up TV from companies other than the BBC, or using services such as Netflix or Amazon.
Impartiality
Not supporting any of the sides involved in a dispute.
Netflix
A streaming service based in California, with over 150 million subscribers. It is available everywhere except China, North Korea, Syria and the Crimea.
Amazon
The most profitable company in the world, founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994 and based in Seattle.
Byword
A perfect example of something.
Fleabag
A comedy drama starring its writer and creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, which was launched on BBC Three and has won numerous awards.
Subsidise
Give financial support to.

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