BBC Hot Air Is Much Ado About Nothing

Charter renewal is always a time for the BBC to be in the headlines as rivals in the local and national press join forces with politicians to lampoon the organisation that Britons are actually rather proud of. Not that much ever really changes. The BBC says it will reform and take on board criticisms and the Charter gets renewed, and the process and arguments are soon forgotten.

Two stories today have caught my eye. One shows how it's very easy to get caught up in terms that only complicate a deceptively simply issue, while the other suggests the BBC opponents should really act a little more logically when throwing stones at the corporation. 

The first story suggests that a majority of Britons prefer a "modernised" licence fee over a subscription model. If anyone can tell me exactly what the difference is, that would be great. What I think they mean is that the licence fee has to be brought up to date with the addition of the word "iPlayer" so people who don't get away with not paying the fee by ditching the television and tuning in solely through online services. That sounds like common sense and should simply be done without a huge commotion. 

The alternative of a subscription service also seems like a non-starter anyway. How would the BBC administer a licence fee, or subscription, for one set of services and not another? It clearly has to be an all-or-nothing approach. If someone wants to rebrand it an annual subscription, then that's fine. Whether a licence fee or a subscription, we'll all end up paying an annual fee to keep the BBC going. The future, then, will be presented as some new grandiose idea -- but trust me, it will be a licence fee with the addition of expressly mentioning the charge applies to those who only watch online television without a conventional tv set.

As for today's second story, I don't know if I'm the only one feeling a little bemused, but Trinity Mirror has been one of the most vocal critics of the BBC, claiming that its free content -- most notably that its free local content -- is damaging commercial news organisations. It's an argument that has some merit. Why would someone bother buying a local paper when their local BBC Web site has plenty of news for their area? The problem is, of course, that it falls a little flat on its face when Trinity Mirror is reported to be on the verge of announcing a GBP220m deal to take a majority stake in Local World, the local newspaper business it already has a 20% stake in. The Guardian quotes a city analyst who suggests the deal is aimed mostly at giving shareholders a future promise of decent returns, given the current slump in print advertising. However, if we throw a bit of logic at the deal you come up with the unanswerable question -- if the BBC is making it so hard for local newspapers to stay in business, why is Trinity Mirror ploughing GBP220m into Local World? If it's such a bad place to be, why invest so heavily?

The print advertising slump obviously has very little to do with the BBC, which dominates in radio, television and online news, It's with the latter that I think we'll see something new come out of the latest charter renewal. Some form of content sharing is in the cards. The first offer of BBC help for local newspapers on covering local courts was turned down as unacceptable so we'll have to see where negotiations go. I'd be very surprised if there isn't a content sharing deal in place over the next couple of years.

As for the wrangling over what to call the licence fee and whether it should even exist, expect a lot of hot air and then the word "digital" being added to the "tv licence" so it becomes a "digital tv licence" or words to that effect. You either have the BBC or you don't and no political party would even try to shut it down so, the truth is, we're going to have it and it will need to be funded. All the BBC bashing in the world can't get us away from that simple fact that crops up every few years and results in the same process of the BBC having to tighten its belt and hope to make a few quid out of DVD sales and BBC Worldwide to tide it over. 

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