Interest fee

Lower license fees could do more harm than good

OPINION: There has been plenty of big, breaking news over the past week, but of most concern to UK readers was the news that BBC licensing fees would be abolished at the end of the broadcaster’s royal charter in 2027.

Announced, disconcertingly, on social media rather than in the Commons, the move was met with a familiar mix of outrage, disappointment, indifference and confusion.

The idea, if there was one, is to bring the BBC service up to speed with modern times – fun in the sense that the growth of online streaming is partly due to the introduction of iPlayer in 2007 – as well as drawing attention to ways to enforce payment, which appears to be for more political reasons.

Removing fees would subject the BBC to the same quicksand and surging tides as other competitors in the TV and online streaming market. Although some may think it fair, the BBC is a public broadcaster and abolishing the fee is tantamount to making it a private body. And I can’t help seeing this as a potentially destructive action.

I am someone who pays license fees or, more importantly, someone who can afford to pay license fees. I may not watch linear streaming as much as I used to, but I regularly use iPlayer to watch various shows and catch up on programs. The arguments against the license fee: that it’s too expensive, that it funds shows that you wouldn’t watch, ring true to me.

£159/year equals £13.25/month and I not only get access to BBC TV programming but all the radio, streaming and podcasts they offer. I could say I get a mix of Netflix and Spotify in one package, and from that perspective it seems like a decent value.

The argument some people make that the BBC doesn’t produce programs they like is subjective. The BBC offers so much that there is something for everyone, and public funding and broad broadcaster remit make it possible. If it were to move to a subscription model, the breadth of its programming could be reduced, reducing the choice and range of opinions it offers.

The BBC remains a source of high quality programming, informing and exposing viewers to new content. My interest in the NFL is mainly due to its weekly broadcast, providing access that was not as readily available on terrestrial television when I was younger, unless I watched TransWorld Sport on Channel 4. The BBC provides access to a variety of things, and potentially putting him behind a tighter paywall is like putting a straitjacket on him.

Comparing it to Netflix or Disney+ isn’t really an apples-and-oranges comparison. Netflix’s growth has resulted in huge debts – in 2021 the figure stood at $18.51 billion after borrowing $15 billion since 2011. That’s sustainable if Netflix continues to grow, but subscriber growth plateaued and Netflix’s response was to raise prices.

The system as it stands is not perfect, and the lack of payment of license fees by young people is a sign that the market has changed. But this is an audience that is much more used to getting things for free and how switching to a different payment model would somehow appeal to that audience is unclear to me.

Something has to change, but this decision seems too drastic and politically motivated. It has the potential to do more harm than good to an element of British public life, a broadcaster envied by others and one we should be celebrating rather than trying to dismantle.