Is the BBC Doomed?

By James O Malley on at

Overt displays of nationalism make a lot of people in the 21st century feel a little queasy. There’s just something that feels a bit odd about pledging your allegiance to a flag, and boasting about what you have thanks to the random luck of birth. But mention other institutions - like the NHS and the BBC and suddenly it is a completely different story.

For people born and raised in Britain, it is pretty much impossible to not feel a twinge of belonging and pride whenever considering what the BBC does compared to the tawdry, advertising-soaked mess that we see on commercial TV and coming out of America’s big four networks. Unlike commercial operators, that were created to make money, the BBC was created with values defined by its first Director-General, Lord Reith - it was to Inform, Educate and Entertain.

Sadly though, the BBC is under threat. The new Conservative government is widely expected to wield the axe and chop up what we understand to be the BBC today - and broader trends in broadcasting and technology perhaps point to a bleak future for the corporation. So is the BBC doomed?

New Government, New Worries

Let’s start with the new threat: the new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who is no fan of the licence fee. He has previously said that it is “worse than the poll tax” (a much-hated flat-rate tax that caused riots when it was briefly introduced in the early 90s), and has also argued that the current setup should be “tweaked”. One suggestion that has been floated in the media following the election has been a decriminalisation of non-payment of the £145.50 a year - which can currently land you a massive fine or even imprisonment.

The reason this strikes fear into the BBC is that it would completely undermine the ‘unique way the BBC is funded’, as the corporation is so fond of saying. Make it non-compulsory and suddenly the BBC becomes essentially a voluntary subscription service - which means that it will have to orientate itself to be more commercially minded.

The way the BBC works is that it uses the success of its popular programmes -- say, Strictly Come Dancing and Top Gear -- to subsidise is important, but less commercially viable programming, like a vast worldwide network of news bureaus and all of those BBC Four shows in which academics walk around talking quietly about art.

The subsidy is both literal and figurative. Literal as it means that the BBC can use the licence fee cash from cheap-to-produce Bargain Hunt viewers to pay / subsidise sending a camera person off to film Barnacle Geese for a year, in the hope that they will jump off the cliff whilst the cameras are rolling.

The licence fee also effectively subsidises legitimacy. Of the BBC’s current output, it is probably very rare to find someone who doesn’t consume any of it -- as even if you never watch BBC One, you probably find yourself listening to Radio 1 or reading the BBC News website.

The danger is that if the BBC gets cut back too much, and has to compete for subscription revenue, it may no longer be able to pay for expensive-but-worthy stuff. And if not everyone buys into the BBC as an organisation, its legitimacy in being able to spend cash on this non-profit generating stuff is called into question.

As is well known too, the Conservatives are no friend of Auntie BBC. Both from an ideological perspective (a big, publicly owned corporation making television in competition with private outlets), and from what the many Tories consider a pragmatic one - ie, just as many on the left consider the BBC to be bias against them, many on the right consider the BBC to be biased against themselves too (in my view, the BBC does a good job of remaining as impartial as it is conceivably possible to be). So killing the BBC is very much within their interests.

The biggest political iceberg ahead of the BBC in the next few years is going to be over Charter Renewal, which is the process by which every ten years the government broadly sets the BBC’s public obligations that enables it to continue to exist. The current charter is due to expire at the end of 2016 - and a hostile government looks set to drastically shake things up.

Minecraft vs BBC Blue Peter

But politics isn’t the only thing threatening the BBC: Technology is too. With the proliferation of broadcasting technologies that have blurred the line between “TV” and “internet”, defining what the BBC should be doing is now incredibly difficult.

For example, the problems start back at the licence fee. Traditionally, it has been said that you need a licence if you own a TV… but what actually is a TV? Is it the screen in your house that is plugged into an aerial on the roof? Or is it the screen in your pocket that can receive moving pictures via the internet?

This confusion has led to a situation where everyone has their own pet theory on how you can wangle out of the fee. For example, I’ve heard people claim that you don’t have to pay if you only watch pre-recorded iPlayer content, but don’t watch live, and others claim that you can stream live, but only if you have your laptop unplugged from the mains. And so on. Basically, there’s no sensible way of defining it, without either arbitrarily taxing people who happen to have a TV signal receiver, or forcing everyone who buys a mobile phone to pay, on the off-chance that they use their multifunctional device to consume BBC content.

Technology has also led to a blurring of the lines between where the BBC competes and where it doesn’t. Traditionally, it was quite a simple divide: the Beeb did TV and Radio, and didn’t compete with newspapers at providing news… but now there’s the behemoth that is the superb BBC News website offering written content alongside video and audio, and the newspapers themselves are increasingly offering more video content.

There’s all sorts of potential inconsistencies like this. Radio 1 has poured a lot of time and energy into building up its YouTube and social media presence, on the basis that YouTube is where the kids of today consume their content… but you could make the counter argument of why bother? The kids of today have plenty of options for stuff to watch - and anything the BBC do is a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of vloggers. It is conceivable that they may never come across BBC content. Heck - by this same logic shouldn’t Children’s BBC start its own Minecraft server rather than worry about making Blue Peter?

Ultimately, there isn’t an obvious answer to the current situation. The BBC exists as it is today as a result of its history, and trying to rationalise its output in modern terms is fraught with difficulty. That said, I don’t want this to be an argument for abolishing the BBC. Whilst it might be akin to a heritage brand, it is a heritage I wouldn’t want to see destroyed.

The BBC is a weird anomaly in the 21st century, with a future that is far from certain, but much as how some people like the fact that we still have the Monarchy even though when you think about it, the idea behind it sounds insane, I can’t help but think that our country, and our culture without the BBC would be less informed, educated and entertained.