Is the BBC right to charge people who only use iPlayer a full fat licence fee?

Today, the BBC is ending the so-called ‘iPlayer loophole’, which an estimated 500,000 viewers have enjoyed to-date. From now on, people will be expected to pay for a TV licence, even if they only consume content via iPlayer.

All over the internet, stories of detection vans that would give James Bond a run for his money are causing people to break into a heated frenzy of Orwellian narratives about the Beeb invading our privacy. Not to mention the unpleasantly termed WiFi ‘packet sniffing’ technology.

Most of this, it seems, is over-exaggerated, especially when some experts suggest that it would be very difficult to tell the difference between a user furtively watching an episode of Eastenders under their duvet and those using similar services from commercial players. Currently, it’s unclear how the BBC plans to police this, but let’s get onto the meat of the matter – is it ok to charge people who only use the BBC’s catch-up service online a full fat licence fee?

In my view: philosophically ‘no’, but practically speaking ‘yes’.

In a world where IP-linked services like Netflix and Amazon Prime can connect individual users to a tailored subscription model, it seems incongruous for the BBC to charge a blanket £145.50 to users who only use an online content platform. These users, assuming they genuinely do only use iPlayer, will be getting far worse value for money than everyone else; when compared to the other on demand services, the licence fee is very uncompetitive.

However, without shifting its funding model and then redefining some of the very precepts of the BBC, it doesn’t really have a choice. The reality is that legislation is always late to the party when it comes to technology, so it seems fair that after a long window of free content (which would not exist without the licence fee), the small number of people only using iPlayer should be asked to contribute.

Of course, some people are angry about this, and this sentiment is understandable. Nevertheless, those up in arms can’t realistically hope to indefinitely be excluded from a marketplace that is founded on the fundamental equation of money in, content and distribution out.

In an environment where people expect to access content as widely and quickly as possible, it’s too simplistic for anyone to assume that the licence fee is only linked to the specific platform they consume their content from. Therefore, to feel aggrieved just because they don’t use a box in the corner of their sitting room to watch the latest episode of Great British Bake Off is to undervalue the wide scope of the BBC’s varied content and multi-platform offering.

This move is particularly interesting when we start to think about just how much the digital economy is changing the viewing landscape. Increasingly, people are moving to customised packages and on-demand subscription models, and levels of non-linear, online and mobile consumption continue to grow. It’s possible that slightly further down the line, the BBC will need to do something more profound to recognise that the expectations of the viewing public are segmenting.

Perhaps in the future a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the licence fee may not be sustainable but, until that point, this latest move seems reasonable if the BBC is to do all it can to continue to fund high quality content.

Matthew Landeman is managing director at Carat UK

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