Sarah Ingham: The BBC licence fee makes no sense in our digital age

18 Feb

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?

Andy Street: The BBC’s Birmingham plans represent a cultural “levelling up” this country needs

23 Mar

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

This weekend Line of Duty, one of the BBC’s most successful shows, returned to our screens for its highly anticipated fifth series. The hit crime drama is one of a number of major TV productions made in Northern Ireland, making a significant contribution the local economy there.

However, few people know that the first series of this hit show – the one that established it as a fans’ favourite – was made in Birmingham, with filming taking place across the West Midlands.

In fact, Line of Duty was created by West Midlands-born Jed Mercurio, who lived for several years in Birmingham where he worked as a doctor in local hospitals.

I don’t know why production of the show moved away from Birmingham, but its move was certainly emblematic of a shortfall in investment by the BBC here, resulting not only in an economic imbalance but also in a lack of representation of West Midlands life on national TV schedules.

Now, all this is changing – with a landmark announcement this week from the BBC and significant plans for independent production studios in Birmingham, following years of lobbying by myself, and huge combined efforts by our talented creative industry. In TV parlance, we are “ready for our close up”.

I believe the announcement by the Beeb represents a kind of cultural “levelling up” – and follows the announcement that the Department for Transport is to move to Brum and the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government to Wolverhampton. All of these moves are crucial to the ongoing success of devolution, as they ensure opinion formers and decision makers, whether in the media or the Government, understand and engage with life outside the capital. But this has been a long time in the making.

For decades, Birmingham boasted one of the biggest BBC centres in the country – Pebble Mill – which was home to the Archers, Top Gear, The Clothes Show, Countryfile, Gardeners’ World and the daily magazine show Pebble Mill at One. Its studios were used to film All Creatures Great and Small, Boys from the Blackstuff, Doctors, Dangerfield, Howards’ Way, Juliet Bravo, Dalziel and Pascoe and more.

After the BBC closed the famous studios in 2004, its presence in the region shrank to a shadow of its former self. By 2011, the Corporation had opened its huge base at Salford’s MediaCity, in Greater Manchester – where it employs more than 3,000 people.

This, for me, was another symbol of how our region was being left behind other parts of the country. It wasn’t just about the loss of jobs and investment, critical though that was, it also meant that talent from our region would be forced to move elsewhere.

It also showed a major national institution turning away from us, and not just any institution – the BBC isn’t like any other business. It is one we all pay for through our licence fee and it was clear that West Midlands people were getting a poor return on the money they were contributing to BBC coffers.

Four years ago, the BBC’s annual report revealed the Corporation spent just 1.5 per cent of its programming budget in the Midlands, down from 1.8 per cent the year previously. It meant that while licence fee payers in the wider Midlands region were paying £961 million a year, the broadcaster was spending just £135 million a year here, while pumping money into London and the North. Quite simply, the BBC was investing less in the Midlands than any other part of the country.

And it’s not just about money – it’s about representation. Think about this: how many TV shows can you name that are set in the Midlands? TV schedules are full of gritty northern dramas, London cop shows or programmes that use famous regional landmarks as their backdrops. Happy Valley is set in Yorkshire, Unforgotten, Luther and Marcella in London, Broadchurch in Dorset. The biggest soaps are in the capital, Manchester and the Yorkshire Dales. Doctor Who may travel anywhere in time and space, but the Tardis chose to move its regular base from Wales to Sheffield.

Yes, we have the sublime Peaky Blinders, created by proud Brummie Steven Knight, and Line of Duty subtly hints at an anonymous Midlands setting, but there are very, very few shows where you can see life here on your screens, or hear our accents. As one of the UK’s most densely populated places, this underrepresentation is simply wrong.

Last week, the BBC announced ambitious plans for its biggest transformation in decades, including moving more programme making and investment to the West Midlands, finally delivering the kind of investment that our region has been crying out for.

This followed months of negotiations with Tim Davie, new BBC Director General, and means that over the next six years the corporation will increase activity across the region, with at least one new primetime drama series and one new primetime entertainment series commissioned here.

This will not only bring new jobs and opportunities, it will also give us the chance to tell our own stories, express our creativity, make our voices heard and ensure a fairer representation for the region on the cultural landscape. However, it will also mean that the BBC will benefit hugely from the incredible pool of talent here.

This is an industrious, innovative place. In the last four years our creative sector has really begun to regain momentum. Creative and digital was the fastest growing sector in the West Midlands between 2016 and 2018. There are nearly 1000 creative businesses in the region, contributing £4.7 billion per year to the economy – that’s why I have always championed it as a sector.

Now, this new BBC investment will feed that momentum, creating more jobs and giving us the opportunity to be a leading light in the sector again, just as we were in the heyday of Pebble Mill.

There have been setbacks. There is no doubt that years of BBC under-investment impacted on independent production here, which was cited as one of the possible reasons Channel 4 chose in 2018 to overlook Birmingham’s bid to be its new base outside of London, in favour of Leeds.

I was personally hugely disappointed by the Channel 4 decision, because I thought we were the best choice, but I don’t regret the fact that we tried. In fact, going through the process with Channel 4 helped us to galvanise our creative sector, work out where our strengths lay, and it has laid the foundations for the successes we are now seeing.

Under my leadership, the West Midlands Combined Authority helped set up Create Central to bring together the local screen industry to lead the development of plans to grow the sector. This included £2 million for Create Central to fund a programme of activities to boost the film, TV and games sector in the region, with £500,000 to run bootcamps to teach young people the skills they need to work in the TV production sector.

All this activity means the arrival of more BBC activity coincides with a creative explosion here, centred around Birmingham’s Digbeth. Two major new production facilities are already planned in this creative quarter of the Brum – Mercian Studios, an international film studios and media village, led by Peaky Blinders’ Steven Knight, and a new Creative Content Hub for independent TV and content production.

Over the next few weeks, the UK will be gripped by Line of Duty, a TV phenomenon that began here in the West Midlands. Soon, the Peaky Blinders will return to our screens too. The news that the BBC is to finally take full advantage of the immense talent to be found here will mean viewers can look forward to many more West Midlands-made TV classics, while local people will get a fairer share of the nation’s cultural currency.