Why the BBC Finds Itself in an Existential Battle for Survival

Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

On February 5th Nicky Morgan, the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, announced an eight-week public consultation on whether to decriminalise TV licence fee evasion. The consultation will seek views on whether the government should replace the criminal sanction with an alternative civil enforcement scheme. Morgan went on to state the significant implications for the public-sector broadcaster:

“Decriminalisation of TV licence fee evasion would almost certainly have an impact on BBC funding.”

While the settlement, and any move to decriminalise licence fee evasion, will not enter into effect until April 2022, the implication for the BBC ahead of the negotiations is that licensing fees – it’s primary source of funding – are only guaranteed until December 2027. Morgan went on to announce a detailed review of the TV license model ahead of the next Charter review process, with a statement that would have sent chills down the collective spine of BBC senior management:

“The licence fee will remain in place for this Charter period, which ends in December 2027. However, we must all be open minded about the future of the licence fee beyond this point.”

In the on-demand era, state broadcasters are heading towards irrelevance 

It is one thing to command an irresistible force to stop – it is entirely another thing to expect it to comply. Much debate in the UK over the previous decade has been over the futile attempt to resist a US-led globalisation of content, news and consumption, led by  evangelistically for-profit Silicon Valley disruptors such as streaming hegemon Netflix and social-news monopolist Facebook. In both cases the disruptors have been guided by a libertarian mission to radically transform their respective areas of focus, fuelled by a permissive regulatory system wholly inadequate to respond to agile, well-financed, fast-moving entities with global ambitions.

Add to this the fact that these disruptors are giving their global audiences what they predominantly want – US-centric content – and the attempts to prop up 20th century linear models of media protection and control look increasingly anachronistic. BBC founding father John Reith’s mission to both entertain and inform in equal measure is now fading in competition against the scripted vacuity of the Kardashians and the psychologically designed self-insulation of Instagram. Potentially even more harmful to the future of the BBC’s current revenue model is its focus on neutrality in ad-free coverage of current affairs. In a polarised world of Brexit and rising nativism, the BBC is a lightning rod for opinion-makers and politicians looking to loosen the societal structures which have traditionally constrained systemically-disruptive dissent. The fact that these same agitators are legally obliged to pay an annual fee to maintain the BBC or face jail time is the existential ethical challenge for regulators of British cultural life. 

Nicky Morgan has now formally given notice that the UK is at its own cultural and societal crossroads, with unforeseeable future implications for what defines British public discourse and entertainment as opposed to the US and global alternatives.

Whether the current British government eventually decides to join the global mainstream and compels its largest de-facto TV subscription service to compete as a direct commercial adversary against much larger and more strongly funded international streaming competitors remains unclear. The financial and legal implications for the UK video consumer are readily apparent – yet the long-term ramifications for British civil society remain unknowable.

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