Mike's Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

October 20, 2005 | 6 min read

Is it worth £180? You know what I mean - the BBC’s bid for an increased licence fee had the media in a lather last week. And given that the Beeb is the single most important media organisation in the UK, and the full rise won’t be felt until 2013, it’s a debate which isn’t going to fast go away.

The BBC plans to increase the price of the TV licence by 2.3 percent above inflation, meaning a jump from the current £126.50 to about £180 in eight years’ time. Really, what is the fuss all about, except that – since the proposal still requires to be agreed by the Government - debate is still possible?

The Corporation says the above-inflation rise is needed to pay for a UK-wide switchover from analogue TV to digital - to pay, for instance, for the building of new transmitter masts, and also to help low-income households and the elderly make the change when, otherwise, they might not.

The Borders is to be the first area to undergo the brave new world of digital only - in three years’ time.

To help sweeten the pill in Scotland, there’s a plan also to switch some production of network programmes from London to up here. And then there’s the ambition of BBC Scotland to create a string of ultra-local journalists, each armed with their own camera and computer software enabling them to edit their own TV packages - available to the likes of Reporting Scotland and also to be shown via ‘the red button’ or online.

Plus, there’s the building of the new BBC Scotland headquarters on Pacific Quay, by the River Clyde.

It is understandable why the BBC sought to justify their proposal in such detail. For the announcement of the proposal, it even lined up a MORI poll suggesting widespread approval. Apparently, 40 percent of respondents would be happy to pay a fee double or more than the current level.

It is understandable for one simple reason: it knew a media onslaught was inevitable. Any excuse for the rest of the media to have a go. The BBC invites envy, for various reasons. Channel 4 and ITV, for instance, will envy it for it not having to enter the jungle that is advertising sales to fund programmes ‘good for us’ while they have to.

With future inflation rates unknown, some newspapers, meanwhile, didn’t hesitate to opt for a more generous estimate of the Retail Price Index in years to come.

“Fury over BBC’s £200 licence fee,” blasted the Express. The Telegraph’s headline was blunter still: “£200,” with the accompanying comment: “When the cost of the licence fee approaches the price of satellite subscription, the case for publicly-funded television disintegrates.”

Meanwhile, “Bloated telly predator” was the Sun’s description, which despaired at “running costs double its commercial rivals” and which “sniffs out popular broadcasting niches that should be left to commercial rivals”.

The Mirror, meanwhile, went on the more widely-accepted £180 price for the new licence, with The Scotsman thinking it's time the BBC switched to other revenue-raising methods.

The Herald, however, plucked a line from almost nowhere: should BBC Scotland run its own, separate digital TV channel, and thereby meet a demand for a news programme as free as BBC News to report from around the world, but produced in Scotland, with a Scottish perspective – commonly referred to as the “Scottish Six”?

The Herald went out on a limb. Truth is the line adopted by most national newspapers was itself dislocated from reality.

With satellite or cable packages currently costing a tidy sum, can anyone seriously argue that £180 per year or even £200 does not represent good value for money?

Well, clearly, people do. In an online poll conducted by www.allmediascotland.com, some 60.9 percent of respondents say £180 is too much to pay.

The problem with any discussion about the BBC is that too many issues are allowed to well up at any one time. If only the discussion was about money and money alone, who would truly baulk at paying less than four pound per week for the BBC’s rich menu of TV, radio and online products?

Ignore all the other debates - for example, what role the BBC plays in providing public service broadcasting and whether or not it should seek out commercial opportunities - were £180 per year put to consumers for a range of programmes that included top-quality news, award-winning comedy and reasonably-impressive sport and movies, would there be that many dissenters? In an open market, would a BBC offering not be the outright winner?

Okay, so there actually isn’t a choice in the matter – it’s not possible to opt out of paying the licence fee in the way it is possible not to buy Sky or Telewest or a Freeview box.

So, the BBC requires to be judged by loftier parameters. The BBC is a welcome friend in a strange place throughout the world, the BBC saves us from a deluge of adverts, the BBC is part of our heritage. It’s good for us and the measure of us, as the NHS is a measure of us and good for us.

We pay taxes for the NHS, and we ought to pay a tax for the BBC, but it is hard to get worked up about how much we pay towards the NHS because we don’t know how much exactly we pay towards it.

Like all public sector agencies, the BBC will have its management issues and strategic dilemmas.

There are debates to be had. Content is king among them. What the licence fee should be, especially if it’s give or take a few quid, seems the wrong battle to engage in.

Mike Wilson is a director of the media website, www.allmediascotland.com

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