A seriously reduced BBC would be disastrous for the industry...
Consultation and clear thinking should be behind any funding changes, not political point-scoring.
Narrative is as important in politics as it is in programming, and it’s easy to get caught up in the dramatic circumstances of the licence fee row, rather than focusing on what it actually means.
The BBC’s settlement and the question marks over the future of the licence fee itself were seemingly rushed out via the culture secretary’s Twitter account to detract from party pressure on the PM. For the corporation to have become a pawn in a game being played out within the Tory party is dangerous.
It doesn’t really matter to the industry whether Thérèse Coffey called out Nadine Dorries (left) in cabinet – the BBC stands to be £285m poorer by 2028 and no amount of teeth gnashing is going to change that.
That will mean more redundancies at an already embattled corporation, and programming and services will surely have to be cut too. Scoping out how to make those savings will be painful work.
The government’s rationale for giving the BBC such a bloody nose is based on the cost-of-living crisis facing ‘hard-working families’. That narrative doesn’t bear scrutiny. By the end of the charter, the £159 licence fee will have risen to just under £175, while the BBC was lobbying for a figure in excess of £180.
Cigarette-packet sums suggest a discrepancy of £6, maybe £7 a year per household. Split over 12 months, that’s 50p-60p a month.
As utility, transport and food costs skyrocket, the monthly cost of a Mars bar is hardly consequential to the public, but a two-year freeze followed by inflation-linked rises leaves the BBC with an endgame annual deficit of more than half the budget of BBC2.
The truth is that inflation is more pronounced in TV production than almost any other sector. So while the public grappled with a 5.4% increase in the cost of living over the 12 months to December 2021, the BBC and its suppliers have been navigating increased costs of somewhere north of 10% – and, in some cases, closer to 25%.
The consensus is that those additional costs are being borne evenly between the BBC and indies, and for both parties a two-year freeze is very challenging.
The prospect of a new funding method could represent a challenge on a whole other scale. Dorries tweeted that “this settlement will be the last” before rowing back somewhat on the floor of the Commons, but that backtracking should not be given too much credence.
The licence fee has been on Boris Johnson’s mind for some time. At a rally in Sunderland prior to the 2019 general election, he expressed reservations about its longevity, and if he survives this period of pressure, it is surely in the firing line.
The problem is that, as with Channel 4’s potential privatisation, the government seems to have made up its mind prior to any industry consultation or clear practical proposals.
The debate should be about whether there is a good alternative to the regressive licence fee that feels more in tune with the digital age. Instead it appears the government is determined to find an outcome that will likely leave the BBC smaller, less impactful and quite probably no longer a universal supplier to the British public.
These are worrying times for the future of public service broadcasting and the wider British TV industry, as political motivations influence policy decisions that will shape our sector’s future.
There has been lots of talk of industry collaboration in recent years and the traditional rivalries between Britain’s big broadcasting beasts are not as pronounced as they once were. The question is whether they can be put aside altogether for a topic as existential as the future of the BBC.
Reducing the corporation to a shadow of its current status would be as catastrophic for our industry as it would be for the public. Let’s have a proper debate, with all our sector’s constituents speaking up. Perhaps change is inevitable, but it needs to be predicated on achieving a widely discussed goal, rather than political revenge.
Chris Curtis is the editor in chief of Broadcast. This article first appeared on Broadcast.
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