Subscription-based funding instead of licence fee is a risk to BBC output says director-general

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The BBC’s director-general has warned that adopting a subscription-based alternative to the licence fee risks creating a “commercial agenda” which would mean a substantial change to the corporation’s output.

Tim Davie told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that if the publicly-funded broadcaster became even largely subscription-based, rather than wholly so, it will “not do what it does today”.

His comments follow confirmation from Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries on Monday that the licence fee is to be frozen at £159 for two years, until 2024, after which it will rise in line with inflation for the following four years.

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A number of alternatives to the licence fee have been floated, including an opt-in subscription service similar to that used by streaming giants such as Netflix, the introduction of advertising, or a broadband levy.

BBC Broadcasting House in London.BBC Broadcasting House in London.
BBC Broadcasting House in London.

Mr Davie said: “Once you’re trying to serve a subscription base and a commercial agenda – and, believe me, I’ve run commercial businesses – it is a completely different situation, because suddenly you are doing things that are there to make profit and make a return to a specific audience.”

Asked if he agrees with the debate that the licence fee is “over”, he said: “I think the debate is more centred around ‘Do we want a universal public service media organisation at the heart of our creative economy, which has served us incredibly well?’ And if we want that, we have to support a publicly-backed and not a fully commercialised BBC.”

He added that the broadcaster could transform into a commercial operation, but if it did “it will not do what it does today”.

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“We have built an incredible creative industry here in the UK, and we’ve got a universal broadcaster that is admired around the world,” Mr Davie told Today.

“That is because it serves the British public and all the British public… the principle of universality is absolutely the debate here.”

The settlement holds the licence fee below inflation until 2024, meaning a real-terms cut in funding, after which it will rise in line with inflation for four years.

Mr Davie said calculations by the broadcaster suggest that, in the final year of the settlement, the funding gap will have grown to around £285 million.

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However, the PA news agency understands there will also be funding gaps in the preceding years, meaning that the overall shortfall will be much higher.

He said: “Our estimate is, and just to set this clearly for everyone, by the year 2027, the licence fee income will be about £4.2 billion based on our assumptions around inflation.

“Guessing games around inflation are obviously difficult. We estimate our settlement gives a £285 million gap, but at the end of the period.”

He said the BBC has made “very good progress in terms of cutting costs that don’t affect the licence fee-payers” as the organisation is “utterly focused on making sure people get value for the licence fee”.

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Broadcaster and horticulturist Monty Don said the freeze means programmes such as his three-part BBC Two series Adriatic Gardens are less likely to be commissioned.

He said on Twitter: “Although there is a debate to be had over the extent and duration of the licence fee, the government freeze will save payers the grand sum of 15 pence per week over the coming year. However it will mean that programmes like Adriatic Gardens will be much less likely to be made.”

The licence fee plans will take effect from April 1, and later this year the Government will “start to consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC”, as part of the mid-term review of the BBC Charter, it was announced on Monday.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced that it plans to cast its gaze to the future and, given the changing broadcasting landscape due to streamers and video on demand, the Government will “separately consider whether the licence fee will remain a viable funding model for the BBC”.