Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
Our small screens have had a good pandemic.
Ratings surged as house-bound Britain turned to box sets. Hovering around $330 at the start of 2020, Netflix shares went through the $700 barrier last autumn. Who didn’t want to escape the reality of being stuck at home with Chris Whitty for the scripted reality of luxury real estate, perfect teeth and power heels in Selling Sunset? Squid Game (Korea), Fauda (Israel) and Call My Agent (France) were glimpses of a world beyond a tepid staycation in Devon.
And for those who haven’t had enough of big pharma over the past two years, there is now Dopesick on Disney+. Over on Amazon Prime, Julian Fellowes’ The Gilded Age swaps Downton for New York’s Upper East Side and Burke’s Peerage for the Social Register.
We are undoubtedly living in a golden age of television. Or rather of content that would once have been watched on a television set, where we originally watched The Sopranos episode-by-weekly-episode, just as earlier generations thrilled to that other family drama with a high corpse count, I, Claudius.
The acclaimed togas’n’tunics series, made by the BBC in 1976, features in Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. It can now be streamed via Apple TV. Those holding Apple stock in the past two years would have seen the price go from around $73 to almost $173.
Approaching its centenary, the British Broadcasting Corporation does not have to concern itself with matters like shareholder value. Like the old money oligarchs of The Gilded Age, the BBC is cushioned by vast unearned income. It can afford to look down on upstart start-ups, whether comparative minnows such as GB News and Times Radio, or mighty YouTube – from which about a quarter of US adults get their news, according to a 2020 survey by Pew Research Center.
Auntie Beeb and her cheerleaders will point to 2021 ratings as proof of her popularity. Aside from the 2020 Euros and the PM’s announcement of lockdown on January 4 – surely an unexpected winner – it had Top 10 hits with Strictly Come Dancing, Vigil and Line of Duty, whose final episode drew 15.2 million viewers.
It is perhaps the Strictly factor that makes the Government hesitate to kill off the licence fee, despite its almost 80-seat majority. Smashing the glitterball and unpicking the sequins would be a dismaying prospect to millions of viewers, who are also voters.
Last month, following the announcement that the licence fee would be frozen for two years, BBC boss Tim Davie implied the future of BBC2, BBC4 and Radio 5 Live could be in doubt. If he had wanted to engage Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells and the Indignants of other leafy constituencies, this was a far shrewder pick of stations-in-jeopardy than, say, Radio 1 or the soon-to-be revived BBC3.
Does the end of the current BBC funding model really mean the end of broadcasting Glasto/EastEnders/David Attenborough/Radios 3 and 6? Or of Wimbledon fortnight uninterrupted by ad breaks? Given the chasms which could apparently open in Britain’s cultural landscape, no wonder a minister even as doughty as Nadine Dorries backs off from any absolute commitment to abolish the licence fee.
The TV licence is, however, an analog anachronism in our digital age. It is time it was axed and the Corporation funded by subscription.
In 2020-21, the licence fee raised £3.75 billion, accounting for 74 per cent of the BBC’s £5.06 billion income. A recent You Gov/Times poll found that only one in 20 of those aged 18-30 watched any BBC channels live every day, compared with almost half of people aged 65 or above.
A television-set tax makes no sense in an era when millions of us are choosing to subscribe to streaming services and are watching what we like, when we like, on our mobile phones and tablets.
A public service broadcaster is the more creative branch of the Civil Service. Like most in Britain’s bloated public sector, it is great at splurging other people’s money. With no need to earn its keep, is it surprising that the £££s the Corporation fritters away on taxis and diversity officers are a tabloid staple?
Supporters claim the BBC represents brilliant value – 44p a day. They overlook the mutual dislike between the BBC and its paymasters, that is, the listening and viewing public. Many resent being legally coerced into funding a service whose worldview is completely at odds with their own.
The national broadcaster should aim to be a neutral in Britain’s cultural skirmishing. As Oliver Dowden stated in his recent speech to the Heritage Foundation, “There has always been a tendency among cultural and educational elite to serve their own interests rather than serve the public at large.”
If the BBC is really serving Middle Britain, it seems odd it lost Bake Off and turned down the revived All Creatures Great and Small, now a hit for Channel 5. Clarkson’s Farm has done more to entertain, educate and inform us about rural life than the clunkingly woke Countryfile or The Archers.
In 2013, the updated House of Cards became the gateway to Netflix for many. Three years later, The Crown pulled in even more new subscribers. Starting in 1997 as a DVD rental company, Netflix is now making Academy Award-winning films and is streaming in 190 countries. In 2020, it generated almost $25 billion in revenue and had an operating profit of $4.5 billion.
Meanwhile, over to the cultural blob that is our aged national broadcaster… In 2020, 55,061 of the nation’s citizens were prosecuted for TV licence evasion. Of the 52,477 convicted, 76 per cent were women, who were unlikely to have been among the most affluent members of the public.
And how absolutely fabulous is that, sweetie darling?