Inform, Educate, Entertain. These are the three guiding purposes of the world’s oldest public broadcaster, whose licence fee has been a subject of debate and controversy in recent months.
The rancour towards the fee, which has been set at £154.50 per annum since April 2019, focusses often upon the value of the BBC in comparison to subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, whose original programming is lauded both in the press and by critics. According to the BBC’s Annual Report for 2018/2019, the licence fee revenue amounted to £3.69 billion. The largest sector within the BBC is television, which in 2013/2014 received over 50% of the overall annual budget. Television is followed from afar by radio, which received 15% of the budget in the same financial year. Thus, a significant portion of the budget is directed towards other, non-artistic services. In support of the BBC, the debate tends to turn to the facets of the broadcaster which such subscription services cannot offer: namely, news and sports coverage. However, this seems to be a failure to recognise and appreciate the BBC’s own original television programming, as well as its cultural significance and its contribution to radio and music.
The BBC operates thanks to a Royal Charter, under agreement with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. “Culture” is perhaps the aspect of the title that one should focus on when considering the continued relevance of our public broadcaster. BBC One is the United Kingdom’s most-watched TV channel. To this, a cynic might respond that it is the first channel listed on Freeview television, and so such a statistic is not surprising. However, this is also a channel that has brought us innumerable classic television shows over the years; Doctor Who is a cultural staple, Sherlock has accrued millions of fans worldwide, and Downton Abbey is a British classic.
Far from being in decline, the BBC continues to be an award-winning production company. At the 2019 Royal Television Society awards, the BBC won 15 out of a possible 29 awards. A sweep of more than half of the available accolades is surely indicative of genuine artistic merit.
Let us turn, for a moment, to the BBC’s artistic competitors. Netflix’s annual operating budget is vastly higher than that of the BBC, and this difference is even more relevant when one considers that all of Netflix’s budget is directed towards programming, while the BBC has multiple functions that split the budget. One might cut the BBC some slack and argue that, in spite of this financial disparity, it competes valiantly with subscription titans. However, is this not a patronising view of a broadcaster which has brought us such works as David Attenborough’s documentaries?
It is undeniable that Netflix can offer us shows of a similar artistic worth to those that the BBC can and does create. However, there is a more intangible thing with which Netflix cannot compete, and that is the BBC’s importance to the cultural fabric not just of Britain, but of the globe. The BBC website cites the five public purposes set out in the Charter, the fifth of which is “to reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world.” The BBC is part of the cultural fabric of Britain, having been the public broadcaster of the nation for almost a century, but its international components should not be understated. The BBC has outposts in almost every part of the world and operates in as many languages. It is a recognised symbol globally, and thus one which perhaps does warrant the support of a licence fee.
However, over £150 per annum is a high fee, and given the fact that evading the licence fee is a criminal offence, it is a sum which effectively amounts to a tax. It is, arguably, unfair to require payment for a corporation whose services are so plentiful that no one individual will actually take advantage of all the things that they are funding. There are arguments in favour of an operating model similar to a subscription service–one could pay for television, for example, but not radio. Nonetheless, it is perhaps comforting to view the BBC as a similar service to the NHS; if you pay for it all now, it will always be there when you need or want it.
Ultimately, one can choose not to pay for the licence fee if one is willing to forgo all BBC services. It is, at its simplest level, a choice much like a subscription streaming service. However, wouldn’t it be a shame to miss such cultural classics as Top of the Pops, Pointless, and The One Show? Fundamentally, the BBC is a staple of British culture domestically and abroad, and its artistic merit is too often undervalued.