A cherished British institution is facing its Waterloo because young people have come to see it as an irrelevance – not the Conservative party but the BBC. Figures from Ofcom released yesterday show a dramatic fall in the amount of viewing of live television among 16 to 24 year olds who, collectively, are only watching two-thirds as much as they did in 2010. Instead, they are getting increasing amounts of entertainment online, through Netflix, Amazon and other services.
Why, with all that available on your phone, your iPad, your laptop, would you see the need to buy a television – especially when you are probably living a semi-nomadic lifestyle between insecure tenancies? The television is gradually losing its distinction as a piece of kit, as the quality of pictures delivered via wifi connections improves. It is a fair guess that within the decade the word ‘television’ may come to be seen as quaint as ‘gramophone’ – there will just be screens.
Maybe there is a department at the BBC which is secretly planning for the day when hardly anyone under the age of 30 sees the need to buy a television licence, but there is no outward sign of it. On the contrary, during the negotiations to renew its charter last year the BBC seemed to behave as if its income from the TV licence were merely a political issue – convince the government to maintain this hypothecated tax on television-ownership, it reasoned, and it would be able to rely on income continuing to flow into its coffers.
In 2014/15, the number of TV licences issued was still just about growing, yet it had become decoupled from the growth in households – while the number of households grew by 236,000 the number of licences increased by 88,000. Since then TV Licensing seems to have stopped publishing figures for the number of TV licences. Instead, it just pumps out ever-more threatening press releases warning people that they need to buy a licence to watch any live TV pictures or, from last September, any BBC catch-up services.
But I don’t think that is going to do the job, somehow –not when viewing of live TV by young people is falling so dramatically. No-one any longer needs to watch live TV for entertainment. As for watching sport on live TV, there are an awful lot of young people who see that as a social activity, to be shared in a pub rather than at home.
The BBC has a choice: carry on trying to extract money by frightening and bullying people through TV Licensing, or to accept that the days of the television licence are numbered and start to move voluntarily towards a subscription model, based on Netflix, Amazon and the like – to operate, in other words, like an ordinary business which has to tempt people to buy its services. I know which route I would want to take were I a BBC executive. But tragically for the corporation it still seems to be 1936 in the minds of many BBC people. They cannot see the generational timebomb ticking away in front of them, and maybe won’t be until it is too late.