Ex-BBC producer John Mair
Available via one of the big streaming platforms, Josh had paid £25 to watch. No small sum, but an amount he was more than happy to fork out for every enthralling minute.
I was reminded of Josh and his choice of pay-per-view when I read in the Mail on Tuesday that the BBC licence fee is set to increase again by £1.50 to £159 from April 1.
Yes, the increase is in line with inflation — but the timing could not be worse.
In a highly controversial move last summer, the BBC removed free licences from 4.2 million elderly viewers in an attempt to boost its finances.
This week we learned that up to 750,000 over-75s have yet to pay up, and many are refusing to do so, outraged at the loss of a benefit they’d enjoyed for the past two decades.
They’re digging their heels in and leaving a potential £117 million black hole in the BBC’s annual £4.9 billion revenue — already down £310 million year on year in 2020 as many households, in this era of Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Apple TV, eschew the licence fee altogether.
It is certainly a headache for BBC panjandrums who are left between a rock and a hard place.
Hauling vast numbers of pensioners through the courts for non-payment is not really an option. Indeed, over the past year just five people have been imprisoned for non-payment.
And it would not stem the tide. The growth in popularity of streaming services has been accelerated by lockdown, with millions of new viewers introduced to the vast digital smorgasbord of small-screen entertainment available.
Britons were already becoming less reliant on ‘Auntie’, and where the silver refuseniks are now leading, many others may follow.
If the BBC wants to survive, then it must seize the initiative and embrace a new funding model and not bury its head in the sand with its blanket fee. Pictured: News anchor Simon McCoy
And yet the Corporation seems oblivious — desperately holding on to a 75-year-old funding model (introduced when there was just one black- and-white channel).
As my son can attest, young people — and increasingly the rest of us — are happy to pay for what they want to watch when they want to watch it.
But still the BBC buries its head in the sand, determined that its blanket compulsory fee will prevail, determined to maintain a bloated workforce and a plethora of services some people never use.
Time is fast running out. If the BBC wants to survive, then it must seize the initiative and embrace a new funding model to ensure that it can continue to flourish for years to come.
With a new Director-General in Tim Davie, and a new BBC chairman in former banker Richard Sharp, there couldn’t be a better moment.
I am a staunch defender of the BBC. I joined in 1979 as a 29-year-old researcher, working my way up to become a current affairs producer and helping to create a show called Question Time.
I saw the organisation morph from a rather more amateur affair, full of competing fiefdoms, into a slicker, more professional organisation putting out extraordinary and innovative programming while fulfilling its remit of educating, informing and entertaining, true to its mission statement as set out by Sir John — later Lord — Reith on the BBC’s founding in October 1922.
Sadly, however, as the Corporation prepares to celebrate its centenary, it can no longer ignore a crisis that has long been brewing. But there is, I believe, a solution.
I propose a ‘best of both worlds’ arrangement that would mean moving to a ‘part-licence fee, part-subscription’ model, allowing the BBC to combine its impartial, public service output with the option of paying for additional streamed entertainment.
If the brilliance is to be sustained, we must futureproof the BBC before it is too late and allow it to take on the streaming giants that have given it a run for its money (Pictured: Eastenders)
Here’s my suggestion: a smaller fixed fee (a minimum of £100) for general access to news, current affairs, documentaries and big national occasions such as royal weddings or state funerals — as well as access to local TV and radio stations and websites.
Everything else would be covered by incremental ‘entertainment’ add-ons via BBC iPlayer, where for a monthly subscription fee (priced similarly to its competitors, rising to perhaps £50 per year) you could get access to soaps, high-level drama, the BBC archives, selected sporting events and much-loved weekly TV such as Strictly.
Over the past few years, people have shown they are prepared to pay for content they want to watch, from the basic £5.99 a month for platforms such as Netflix to average annual payments to Sky that now stand at hundreds of pounds per household.
Of course, the rights to high-end competitive sport may cost more for one-off events, but as my son Josh would tell you, fans are only too willing to pay for this.
There is no doubt that these platforms have given the BBC a run for its money. Yet in some ways they have also laid useful groundwork, softening the public attitude to subscription models.
With the on-demand BBC iPlayer service already in operation, the technology is effectively ready. All that is required is for people to start paying for it.
No discussion about the BBC’s future can take place, however, without mentioning staff numbers — about 20,000 full-time with thousands more part-time and flexi-working.
That’s before we even get to its overgrown management, a problem that was already in evidence even back in my day.
The late Brian Wenham, former controller of BBC2, once said that the BBC version of musical chairs involved a chair being added rather than taken away whenever the music stopped: then, as now, few people ever got sacked.
They were moved sideways or promoted — with some even being made redundant and then rehired as freelancers.
Time will tell whether that is the fate of the Corporation’s editorial director and former economics editor Kamal Ahmed, who it emerged yesterday has been made redundant.
This has left the BBC in breach of its own rules on ethnic minority representation, with not a single BAME person on its news board.
Despite such job cuts, there is still fat to trim, not least among some of its highest-earning stars.
Gary Lineker, who topped the salary league last year, this week appeared to mock the £1.50 increase, with an inappropriate and insensitive tweet: ‘But, but I’ve just taken a pay cut…’ (The Match Of The Day host did indeed lose some £400,000 from his £1.75 million pay cheque last year.)
Even that, though, will not tackle the fundamental issue, which is that the BBC’s ‘one- size-fits-all’ licence fee model looks out of place in the 21st century.
In the past year, alongside long-standing beacons of excellence in the schedules such as Antiques Roadshow and Springwatch, there have been many exciting new BBC series, from the lauded adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People to I May Destroy You by writer and actress Michaela Coel, and currently The Serpent.
All are reminders that the BBC has its place at the heart of our national culture not just by default, but because it has the capacity to be brilliant.
But if that brilliance is to be sustained, we must futureproof this institution before it is too late.
John Mair, a former BBC current affairs producer, is editor of The BBC: A Winter Of Discontent and four other books on the BBC.