The Next 100 Years of the BBC
Predictions and preferences inside...
Last week’s newsletter coincided with the centenary of the BBC, and many readers were, I know, expecting a screed about how it’s time to take Old Yeller outside for a bit of fresh air...
In truth, I decided that it would be imprudent to write something about the BBC last week, other than this list of the 20 most defining moments in the organisation’s history, which I wrote for The Independent. The questions surrounding the future of the BBC are vast and impact the entirety of the UK’s media sector (which has ripples for the rest of the world). But last week was a celebration of an institution that has done amazing work for a hundred years, and I felt like nothing I had to say would contribute to that festival of nostalgia. But, in the words of a certain Mr W. Shakespeare: nothing will come of nothing.
What will the next hundred years of the BBC look like then?
There are two ways of approaching this question: from the perspective of prediction and from the perspective of preference. These things are very much not the same. The BBC has evolved, especially since the digital advent, in ways that no sane person would have predicted. Nobody would’ve foreseen the scattershot approach to digital product, the strange monopolies the corporation has cornered, the successes and failures of these approaches. But any predictions about the BBC should work under two governing assumptions. Firstly, a leopard does not change its spots and the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Secondly, and this is less conceptual, the funding model is going to change.
The BBC charter is next up for renewal in 2027, and former culture secretary Nadine Dorries has already announced (under a Boris Johnson premiership) that the date will mark the end of the license fee (at least in its current guise). Watchers of UK politics will note that neither Dorries nor Johnson is now in office. We’ve had multiple culture secretaries and multiple Prime Ministers since that pledge was made. But nobody has shown any inclination to row it back. The sale of Channel4 to private ownership, on the other hand, which was announced by Dorries, has been widely derided and now seems unlikely to happen. Changing the Beeb’s funding model in 2027? It’s going to happen.
The problem the BBC has is really one of its own making (or, to be more charitable, one born of its own success). The brief of the BBC has expanded so widely beyond the narrow televisual and radio offerings of a hundred years ago. It now offers an enormous range of channels, content streams, productions, digital products and more. It has brought itself into a state of competition with, not just ITV and Global, but the entirety of the private market. Netflix, Amazon, Disney, the lot.
It has also managed to piss everyone off, due to its impossible commitment to impartiality. There are only a very narrow band of milquetoast centrists who seem satisfied with the BBC’s impartiality: most people on the right are convinced it’s a factory for Trots, while most on the left think it’s a state organ of the Tory party. The reality, as I’ve written many times, is that the BBC does just about the best possible job it can with this impossible task. It is, after all, staffed by real humans, feeling real emotions and living in our real world. Just look at the case this week of Martine Croxall, the BBC presenter who has been taken off air for her remark that the turbulence in the Conservative party was making her feel “gleeful”. To some, this will be a sign that the liberal rot at the BBC has run deep; to others, this will be seen as conservatism silencing the natural, excited response of a human being.
The problem with all this is that the lobby for maintaining the license fee has been, year on year, eroded. In 2027, I would expect there to be a Labour government, probably led by Keir Starmer. But whether it’s Starmer or Sunak, the appetite for reform will probably prevail.
A move to a subscription model is often mooted, and would be the simplest adaptation from the current system. Indeed, the increasing decriminalisation of license fee dodging has to some extent created that model – just like the policing of cannabis in the UK has effectively changed its legality, even if the law hasn’t changed.
£10-15 a month, per user, wouldn’t be a substantial change for audiences, but it would be a *huge* change for the corporation. Suddenly, the BBC would not be able to guarantee its funding – it would operate like Netflix, where a sharp decline in its user base this year led to huge lay-offs and other cost-cutting. The BBC’s competitive advantage, domestically and internationally, has been its ability to weather any storm, to invest in creating content in spite of market turbulence, and to avoid chasing the tail of popularity. Look at Netflix’s reporting this week: total crap products like Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and The Watcher have helped arrest the decline of their membership. Netflix appears to be taking a lowest common denominator approach – true crime and reality TV – shelving its ambitions for prestige product. Disney+, meanwhile, is just spaffing out Marvel and Star Wars spin-offs, and growing day by day. This is the marketplace that the Beeb would have to operate in, if it worked from a subscription model.
The subscription model would, probably, be augmented by some sort of guaranteed taxpayer funding. Keep the lights on at New Broadcasting House and all that. There would likely be a more aggressive attempt to flog international rights, something we’ve seen the BBC doing in recent years, with the launch of subscription platforms in the US and elsewhere and the integration of content onto BritBox. Could the BBC also strike a deal with Netflix or Amazon, to guarantee content production for those platforms and secure lucrative international broadcast rights? It seems a more straightforward approach that trying to build a BBC streaming brand from scratch.
Advertising is something that has always been anathema to the BBC’s self-conception. Indeed, restrictions on promotion are hard-coded into the organisation’s rules. But the BBC does carry advertising on international products AND with Netflix rolling out a cheaper version of its product which carries adverts, perhaps people will get more used to the idea that subscriptions and adverts run in tandem. Cheap, quick advertising, everywhere. But digital advertising is, for want of a better word, a shit show. I wouldn’t bet much on it – and I certainly wouldn’t risk alienating people’s preconceptions about what the Beeb *is* in order to bring in those pennies.
All these struggles point to one thing: a smaller BBC. And if these changes are to be rung in from 2027, it will impact the next few years too. Look at the performance of expensive digital products like BBC Sounds, which released its quarterly figures this week. Weekly users were flat, as were total plays, and the attempt to integrate third party podcasts (a necessary evil for any audio app) saw a 3.1% decline. This is just not the performance you would want from your much-maligned audio product, especially at a time when long-termists at the organisation must be thinking about the coming squeeze.
The good thing is that there’s absolutely no reason for BBC Sounds to exist. Yay? There’s also no reason for the BBC to be developing its own smart speaker software. There’s basically no reason for the BBC to do a lot of the things it has sought to do, chasing the tail of Silicon Valley competitors. As the reality of serious budget cuts looms, the best case scenario is that the BBC’s ambitions are scaled back to what it does best. Great TV, great radio, essential news.
This brings us to the matter of my preference.
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