Annabel Denham

The BBC needs to face up to the truth about the licence fee’s future

It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that the National Audit Office thinks the BBC faces ‘significant’ uncertainty over its financial future due to changes in viewing habits. The NAO’s findings are about as ground-breaking as your average anodyne Beeb drama, but they do tighten the cilice on a funding model that is impossibly outdated in the 21st century. 

In the past decade alone, there has been a 30 per cent decline in BBC TV viewing; on average, the amount of time an adult spent watching broadcast BBC TV fell from 80 minutes per day in 2010 to 56 minutes in 2019.

When it comes to younger viewers, the NAO’s findings are ever more troubling for the BBC: in the UK, 18-34 year olds now watch seven times as much Netflix and YouTube as BBC1 content. They spend more time watching Netflix and YouTube than all other public service channels put together. The average time spent by all adults watching Netflix and YouTube is greater than the amount of time spent watching BBC1. 

As Baroness Morgan of Cotes, the former DCMS Secretary once tipped to be the next BBC Chairman told me at an IEA event on Tuesday: 

‘Although many of us are at home more than ever before and desperately searching for good content..that content is not found on the BBC these days.’

If this was a case of Brits spending less time watching the BBC this would be bad enough. But there’s another crisis for the corporation: in 2019-20, the BBC generated total income of £4.94bn, of which £3.52bn was public funding from the licence fee. That was £310m less than the corporation received from the levy between 2017-18.

The BBC’s defenders will point to the corporation’s world-class content as being well worth the 43p per day it costs licence fee payers.

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