Bet On The Licence Fee

January 24, 2008

I should start by saying that this post, like everything on this blog, are my personal views and not those of my employer. 

I only read about last week’s Oxford Media Convention in the papers, but a number of interesting things happened.

James Purnell ruled out the often suggested and rather stale idea of an “Arts Council of The Airwaves” (i.e. a body to fund public service programmes). Critics of the BBC often dredge this one up but it has been rejected before and it’s good to see it being rejected again. 

But if an Arts Council of the Air is ruled out, what about Ofcom’s Public Service Publisher? Isn’t this the same thing dressed up in digital clothes? Ofcom seems to be not quite as keen on this as it was (in fact they seemed to be “back-peddling like mad”).

I noticed this quote from an internal BBC website (although I can’t source it beyond there): “The broadcast watchdog said the PSP is intended to deliver public value solely through interactive media, and not through broadcast.” But surely with convergence happening is there any difference between “interactive media” and “broadcast”?

And as my friend Simon Hopkins pointed out when we discussed this over coffee yesterday, how can OFCOM simultaneously regulate and commission content? This is a criticism often levelled at the BBC, but at least there’s some clear blue water between the commissioning function (BBC management) and the regulator (the Trust).  Wouldn’t OFCOM have a conflict of interest? Or do we want ANOTHER regulator to regulate OFCOM’s content?

And if OFCOM wouldn’t run the PSP, who would? (How about an “arts council”?!)

There’s another problem with a PSP. If you’re spending public money on content you need public accountability. In other words, more process, more bureaucracy, more public value and market impact tests (will OFCOM do MIAs on its own commissions?). Although I defend the BBC Trust  the last thing UK media needs is more regulation and process.

Purnell said he would look seriously at the idea of “top slicing” the licence fee. I think this a bad idea and better people than me (Polly Toynbee, Steve Hewlett, Maggie Brown, Michael Lyons, Peter Preston and Mark Thompson) have said why.

What problem are top slicing and the PSP trying to solve? Not enough public service content in British media?

Well top slicing won’t solve that problem on its own. It will just redistribute the same amount of money (unless there is a significant increase in the licence fee to make up). Top slicing won’t bring new money into public service content. Why not try and find some new ways of funding public service content instead of nibbling away at the licence fee?

Some people who float the PSP idea seem to think that the BBC cannot adapt to an on demand, digital age. But there are signs that both the BBC and Channel 4 are starting to get their act together. Why can’t they be the Public Service Publishers?

One intriguing idea was floated by Bill Thompson at the Convention (see paragraph 16 of the article linked to).

Maybe the problem is not that there’s not enough public service content. Maybe the problem is that everyone can’t find it or access it. How about putting some public money into finishing the UK broadband network so everyone could get access to all that high quality, high bandwidth public service content?

This idea has several advantages.

It would be a one off cost rather than a continuing one, so much easier to fund (perhaps from some of the money raised by the sell off of analogue spectrum). It also wouldn’t need to be regulated in the same complex way as content does. How about a “Freeband” service to go alongside “Freeview” and “Freesat”?

I am a perrenial optimist. I hope Purnell (Update 7.56 p.m. I published this post and then realised that Purnell had moved on) is bold enough to reject top slicing.

But there’s a silver lining in even the top slicing cloud. Let’s face it, to top slice you need something to top slice in the first place. So the prospect of the licence fee being abolished (as some critics of the BBC yearn for) seems as unlikely as ever.

So I throw down the gauntlet. In 2027 the BBC will be 100 years old (and I will hopefully be retired). I will bet anyone reading this a fiver that in 2027 there will still be something called “The BBC” and it will still be funded by a licence fee.

This will require only more Royal Charter (they run for ten years – this one runs out in 2017) and one more licence fee settlement (for ten years).

N.B. When I made this bet on the Backstage Mailing List someone suggested that paper money would be obsolete by 2027.

So if I’m wrong I will pay out in Ferengi latinum, food coupons, goats or whatever currency or barter system we happen to be using.


19 Responses to “Bet On The Licence Fee”

  1. Hilary Says:

    How about Linden dollars?

  2. Bill Thompson Says:

    I’ll take your bet – is it a fiver at 2007 prices, indexed to inflation? Hope so or it won’t buy much…

  3. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Not sure if I’ll index it to inflation!

    But I hope your broadband idea becomes a reality.

  4. A fiver in 2027 could be exactly the micropayment required to watch half an hour of downloaded, self-scheduled telly 🙂

    Maybe TV licence stamps will make a comeback, with one (electronic of course) required for every non-advertising supported programme watched on any UK channel?

  5. […] Nick Reynolds recently commented on our site, asking ‘What exactly are the arguments FOR top slicing or […]

  6. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Alan – the micropayment is not very good value compared to a monthly licence fee of around £12 for which you can download or an unlimited number of TV programmes from the iPlayer.

    These solutions always seem terribly complicated to me!

  7. What about the people living in areas that can’t get so many electrons squeezed down their broadband pipes … they’re paying for services they can’t access. And the ones in DAB dead zones … never mind FM and Freeview black spots?

    (PS: I do agree that a flat fee is easier, but it does disadvantage some of the audience.)

  8. See:

    My understanding of PSP is that it would recognise existing “community” efforts and seek to support them and also look to encourage new approaches.

    Why wouldn’t this be BBC territory? The only way to answer this is to look at and tell me why the BBC hasn’t done something as simple, beautiful and brilliant. I’m constantly amazed at how many people I talk to recommend it as their first port of call when looking to agitate for some local response from their MP.

    As for a renewed licence fee settlement, be careful what you wish for! As Bill hinted in his response above, not having a link to inflation in the licence fee settlement could mean that by the time renewal comes about the worse thing for the BBC could be having to keep the licence fee! Charter renewal is a given.

  9. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Alan – this is why BBC services and content should be on as many different platforms as possible – it’s not an argument for top slicing.

    Michael – even if the licence fee is not index linked it will still bring in billions of pounds. Where else could that amount of money come from?

  10. Nick,
    In a way the argument as to whether there is something called the BBC and a ‘licence fee’ is irrelevant to the much bigger question you raise: “Maybe the problem is not that there’s not enough public service content. Maybe the problem is that everyone can’t find it or access it.”
    I am sure that the BBC and a fee will exist in 2027 in name, but it may be doing a completely different thing such as linking to a whole range of providers who benefit from a much more wide-spread and diverse distribution of the tax raised for public service journalism.
    In that sense, I am sure you will lose your bet.
    Charlie Beckett, Polis, LSE

  11. Nick,

    I floated a few ideas (in the New Ideas Symposium and the Innovation Forum) in my days at the BBC.

    Their essence lay in the fact that the BBC, historically, had been given a slice of scarce spectrum and in return provided a public service, but that in the digital era where spectrum was plentiful the BBC needed to focus and seek to act like a “commons” and provide an area where people could gather and share ideas and thoughts openly and creatively, with the BBC adding to the discussion (not seeking to lead). Part of this required a re-imagining of what the licence fee funded/was for.

    As it stands people equate the licence fee with paying for the BBC, whereas I was agitating for a digital licence to fund content creation and for the BBC to offer a commons area where this content could be shared freely. The main intent was to move away from the idea being of funding access to an individual playout device – the television – and to be seen to be an organisation that simply made its content available to the nation, who could creatively use it after that.

    I don’t think the licence fee is a bad way to fund the BBC (as long as the BBC keeps to it’s public service remit!) but I do think that it has got conflated with simply funding television viewing and as such it needs to be “replaced” and a new digital licence introduced with a new mission statement of what the BBC does.

  12. nickreynoldsatwork Says:

    Well Charlie I didn’t ask what the BBC would be doing in the future, simply that it would exist and would still be funded by a licence fee. So I think I win my bet.

    Michael – what the BBC is supposed to do is now set out in the Charter. It’s supposed to further certain public purposes, not just make television content. The BBC doesn’t need a new mission statement – the public purposes are a mission statement, and are quite new.

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