The BBC’s Future Must Be as a Subscription Service

BBC New Broadcasting House

With discussions around whether the TV licence should be decriminalised, it should now be considered that the BBC becomes an opt-in subscription service.

Since the introduction of the television licence, the BBC has had carte-Blanche to do effectively as it wants, with very little in the way of scrutiny or accountability – simply because of the unique way in which it is funded and managed.

A simple example of this is, for a commercial broadcaster, if a programme is commissioned or a channel/service launched that turns out to be a flop, the decision is taken fairly early on to axe it. The BBC in its current guise, does not have that commercial pressure, it will get the licence-fee-payer’s money regardless.

This in itself generates considerable side-effects. The BBC is prone to knee-jerk reactions. Recently the BBC announced that it is cutting 450 jobs within its news division. It’s news division, whilst not a global money-making empire, is the corporations jewel in the crown.

The money saved by shaving off chunks of its news-gathering capability is nothing compared to what it could save by rationalising its out-of-control television programme spending. An example of that you ask? Well, here’s one – the new Eastenders set, which is massively delayed and £27m over budget is one that spings to mind. Consider that the total cost for the new Eastenders set has risen to £87m, whilst up in Manchester, its competitor over on commercial station ITV – Coronation Street – is also in a new set, which was built on time and cost a cool £10m.

What is quite clear, is that there is a need for a public service broadcaster. A basic bouquet of services should be provided. One general linear television channel (BBC One), BBC News and BBC Parliament would be sufficient to satisfy a public service commitment. The BBC would then be free to operate a commercial or subscription-only set of linear television channels and streaming services where its premium programming would rightly reside.

It could operate a commercial sports channel if it so wished. It would then be able to use its free-to-air BBC One as a shop-window to its premium content available with a subscription.

BBC Local Radio

The problem with BBC Local Radio, is that it has morphed into a network of x radio stations, each with its own identity, yet none sharing anything really in common.

Local Commercial radio by and large caters for musical tastes across multiple genres, and in more recent times, BBC Local Radio has attempted to emulate their commercial counterparts. Where BBC Local Radio should be right now, especially as a public service broadcaster, is the dissemination and discussion of local information and news.

What’s even worse, is that the emulation of commercial radio at the BBC, has seen an influx in networked programming in the last 15 years. The term BBC Local Radio really does not give an accurate description when on BBC Radio Shropshire at 10pm in the evening, your “local” phone-in show is originating from BBC Radio Leicester.

The experience that I personally have from my time involved with BBC Local Radio was the notable deterioration in the willingness of local station managers to opt-out of the networked programming to cover local breaking news. A decade ago, it was not uncommon for overnight programming to be dumped in favour of local severe weather programming. I can recall being on air providing updates to BBC Radio Cumbria when severe flooding hit Cockermouth in November 2009.

The same level of coverage would not be forthcoming today, and that is where the BBC’s local radio remit has been lost. If BBC local radio stations are not going to be local, then there is simply no point in having them. A quasi-national or regional service is catered for in the commercial sector, and by the BBC’s own national services.

Nationally, with the BBC‘s move towards podcasting and on-demand audio with its “BBC Sounds” service, it would not be unreasonable to expect that some of that content is included within an all-encompassing subscription model.

To summarise, I am in favour of a government-funded network of public service local radio stations, so long as they are exactly that and not trying to compete with their commercial counterparts as if their ratings depend on it – they don’t.

A local radio station should be discussing, debating and analysing local issues for the local population and engaging with its listenership on those issues. It wouldn’t be difficult, say for example, that BBC WM as part of its public service remit had a weekly phone-in with the West Midlands Metro Mayor, along with phone-ins with local councillors, and Members of Parliament.

It is time to un-blur the boundary between public service broadcasting and commercial sector broadcasting.

This article was originally written for News on News, and republished here after it was first published there.