If the BBC is Auntie, then this feels like the right time to have a frank, family discussion about her future as she enters a critical period in her life.
With a Conservative majority in May and the appointment of John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary, came immediate speculation about the future of the BBC as the 2016 Charter renewal edged into view. The newspapers began using military metaphors to describe the forthcoming negotiations around the licence fee and how the BBC will and should be funded.
It is beamed into offices around Britain, widely used for telling us the weather, the latest news and sport locally, nationally and internationally. It provides entertainment and education through films, TV and radio (advert free) and the iplayer has led the way in on demand viewing. Its reach is pervasive, and difficult to avoid. As an institution it is of national and international importance, playing a major role in Brand UK. Indeed, the BBC contributed to the United Kingdom topping the recent ComRes/Portland “Soft Power” list, ahead of the US and Germany.
However, we now live in a multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-device, digital, on-demand and on-the-go world. Is the licence fee, first conceived and introduced in 1946 still an appropriate way of funding the BBC in 2016 and beyond?
An obvious place to start is the divisive nature of the debate. Britain is split almost right down the middle on the fairness, or otherwise, of the annual £145.50 licence fee with 45% saying it is unfair and 53% saying it is fair.
The BBC however, conducted an interesting experiment of their own. The study saw 48 households that said they would like to pay nothing or less than the current licence fee starved of the BBC for nine days. Following their period of BBC cold turkey, two thirds of these households changed their mind and were now happy to pay the full £145.50, perhaps proving Joni Mitchell’s lyrics that “you don’t know what you've got till it's gone.”
Fairness of the licence fee is one issue, but initial reactions to possible funding models show no convincing winner. While equal proportions both support and oppose and current licence fee model, abolishing it and having the BBC responsible for its own funding, even at the expense of original programmes and the introduction of adverts is supported by half (52%) of Britons. Despite this, a substantial minority (34%) oppose it. Funding the BBC through higher general taxation is widely opposed, while a direct subscription fee is supported by a third and opposed by slightly more (46%).
These of course are top of mind views, giving us a helpful insight into the starting point of the debate among the public. Despite all the headlines and news stories, the levels of support for the different models haven’t shifted over the past year. However, the “cold turkey” experiment shows the impact that debates, conversations and consequences can have. On an issue of such complexity but also relevance to so many, in-depth consultation is important to understand more nuanced views which can be teased out with greater thought, provocation and information.
On something as important as the future of the BBC, informed public dialogue is a must. The public are key stakeholders in this debate and will be key voices around the family dining table to discuss what to do next with Auntie Beeb.