Lord Hall of Birkenhead is feeling pretty bullish about the quality of the organisation he leads. “We’re not Netflix, we’re not Spotify. We’re not Apple News,” the BBC’s director general will apparently tell the Royal Television Society on Thursday. “We’re so much more than all of them put together.”
To which the obvious answer is: if you are so confident that the public loves your product, then why are you so frightened about exposing it to commercial competition?
Surely, Lord Hall would be relishing the opportunity to get rid of the tax on TV-ownership which funds the BBC and fund itself in the way that all other TV and radio stations have to do – from subscriptions or advertising.
Yet funny enough, Lord Hall doesn’t want to do this – describing it earlier this year as ‘the wrong model’ for funding the BBC. Instead, his BBC is going in the other direction, threatening to send ‘outreach teams’ to the homes of over-75s who have failed to buy a TV licence when blanket free licences for that age group are abolished next year.
Most galling of all is Lord Hall’s suggestion that the likes of Netflix have only been established thanks to “huge losses or massive cross-subsidy”. What on Earth does he think the TV licence is if not a huge form of cross-subsidy? You want to watch ITV, you want to watch Sky, you want to watch Channel 4? It is the BBC you have to pay. It is rather as if we were all forced to hand over an annual lump sum to Tesco whether we wanted to do our shopping there or at Sainsbury’s or Aldi.
Why governments of all colours have been happy to continue with the anachronism of the licence fee defeats me. But in the end it will be hubris which does for the BBC. Last year, the number of TV licences fell by 37,000. That is a small percentage fall given that 25.9 million people still bought a licence, but it threatens to become a flood as young people, able to access as much entertainment through streaming services as they want, see no need to buy a television or licence. The trend is exacerbated by a change in the way people live – increasingly, young people are flitting from one short-term rental contract to another. A property-based TV licence makes no sense to them. The trend will only increase as superfast broadband improves download speeds.
If the BBC had genuine confidence in its product it would see which way the wind is blowing and voluntarily abolish the licence fee in favour of subscriptions. Instead, I fear the opposite will happen – it will lobby the government to try to bolster its revenues by extending the scope of the TV licence to users of mobile phones, laptops and so on until a government is brave enough to rebuff it. Then we will find out for sure how much we all really love the BBC.