The political knives are out for the media behemoth that has been the voice of Britain for almost 100 years. The price freeze will leave a funding shortage of £285-million by 2027 that will require programming and staffing cuts, for a £4-billion organisation that is described as “lean” by its CEO. Shame.
Although sympathy shouldn’t be our first reaction, two-thirds of Britons are in favour of scrapping the £156 (R3,120) annual fee that would irrevocably change the institution and its potential impact on society.
The complaints against the fee range from a decline in consumption of BBC content to an antiquated model and the general frustration of being forced into a transaction.
Although South Africans are all too familiar with the grudge purchase of an enforced licence fee for a service that is waning in popularity, the unintended consequences for Britain could be huge.
A new study published in The International Journal of Press/Politics looked into the impact of public media on the democratic health of 33 countries. Its findings were clear: high levels of secure funding for public media systems and strong structural protections for the political and economic independence of those systems are consistently and positively correlated with healthy democracies.
Causality is, however, hard to establish – does democracy thrive when public media is well funded and independent, or vice versa? The answer is more likely a two-way street or feedback-loop scenario, where one feeds off the other.
European countries and northern European democracies, especially, were found to have higher contributions to public media on a per capita basis. Germany spends $142.42 per person on its public broadcasters, Finland $101.29 and Denmark $93.16. The US, as the largest economy in the world, spends a paltry $3.16 per person, or one-sixth of Botswana’s $18.38 per person. The study goes on to conclude that audience reach and size isn’t correlated with democratic health but rather that its mere existence (supported by independent operations) contributes to better functioning societies.
If the licence fee were scrapped completely, and the BBC was forced to look at alternative revenue models like a Netflix or HBO subscription, what would the output of those efforts look like and how much of it could still be classified as a “public service”?
Although the pulling power of binge-worthy series and never-ending libraries of feature films is uncontested, what would happen to news coverage, the BBC World Service, Olympic Games and the many free-to-air radio stations and podcasts? And what about treasures like David Attenborough and the important work on nature and climate change? Moreover, what would happen to democracy itself if a huge portion of the British news diet was slashed, leaving a void for, well, who knows what?
There are few alternatives to the subscriptions as the revenue model, as many public broadcasters around the world employ. Some are suggesting a broadband tax, government grant funding or some rather fiscally sourced funding that could keep the editorial vision of the BBC on the same path. The challenge will come if it is forced to go down the advertising or subscriptions path because media that is purely market-force driven takes very different decisions to those that have a public service mandate and funding model.
Although the BBC will need to slim down operations and update its offering, it remains the success story of public-funded media, despite its current challenges.
Every organisation, let alone media companies, is required to innovate and evolve. No one is exempt from the demands of relevance and staying in tune with the needs of its audience. But flipping the switch completely and moving from a licence fee to subscriptions, for example, runs the risk of leaping from journalism that society needs to content people want. Needs vs wants. Journalism vs content. DM168