I recently posed a question on Twitter:
This sparked a series of back and forth tweets between myself, @johncoxon and @robhague discussing various ways the current system might change. John promptly gathered up his thoughts in a blog post, and I thought I would do the same. I’ll borrow John’s description of the current system for those that don’t know how it works:
In the UK, watching live television (in colour) carries with it a licence fee of £145.50. This basically means that if you own a television you pay the fee (unless you can prove you’re not using it to watch live broadcasts) and technically speaking, if you watch iPlayer live, you are also required to have a licence.
Now I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d guess that the number of people renewing their TV license is slowly going down. As John mentioned the licence only applies to watching live TV, so assuming you can wait an hour or so you can save yourself £145.50 a year by using catch-up services like iPlayer, itvPlayer and 4oD. This is what me and my partner have decided to do this year, given how few shows we found we needed to actually watch live. It was discussing this decision recently that sparked the above tweet.
At some point, if people are opting to wait and save money, the BBC will need to look into new ways of being funded . John mentioned a monitor tax which would be applied at the point of sale for most devices that can be used to watch TV. I’m not in favour of this system as it requires people to pay for a feature of the product they may never use, and it was extending this line of argument that lead me to decide that we should privatise some of the BBC.
I am very happy and willing to fund TV shows I like, but the more I think about the way the TV license works the more I realise I’m not entirely happy about paying for shows I don’t like. I do not see why I should be forced to pay for the entertainment of others. What I found especially striking was considering the system compared to other types of media. People are not expected to fund the films I like, nor the computer games, yet quite a lot of Brits are happy with the notion that everyone should chip in and fund their favourite TV shows.
Some people have argued that without the licence fee we’d end up like America, which they describe as having a few very high quality shows but the rest is awful broadcasting much below the level of the UK, as it’s the licence fee ensures the high quality of the BBC which in turn forces the other channels to up their game. The problem with this argument is that it’s completely subjective. The quality of the BBC or lack of quality of American shows is purely opinion, and so doesn’t really make a compelling argument for why I should pay £145.50 a year. It also doesn’t take into account all the other forms of media manage to make great works without relying on taxation for funding.
Without the licence fee I fully expect that we’d lose some shows, maybe even some shows that I like and would hate to see cancelled. But I think that’s fair. If there are not enough people who are willing to fund something you shouldn’t just get everyone else to cover the cost. You can moan all you want about what a detrimental effect it’ll have on creativity but I just think it is fundamentally unfair to force people to pay for something as trivial as a TV show.
Now I said initially that we should privatise some of the BBC, what I’m not suggesting is privatising BBC News. I think that BBC News should remain paid for by some sort of general taxation as I feel it’s providing a valuable service that everyone should have access to if they want it. Now it’s obviously nowhere near as important and as necessary as healthcare, but I do think it’s more important than the entertainment provided by general TV shows.
I’m almost certain that the growing ability to watch TV online thought various different services will cause some sort of change in the way the BBC works, and whatever form it ends up taking I don’t think that the change is very far off.
The same problem faces road tax. Where will all the money come from when all cars are electric and exempt from road tax?↩