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"Dear Mark..." An open letter calling for a subscription-funded BBC

David Graham calls for a subscription-funded BBC.
David Graham
9 June 2010

Dear Mark

The BBC is the UK’s most important national entertainment asset, our biggest global media brand, with a great sense of purpose and formidable scale.

But here’s the thing: you and billions of others will soon be able to get a quality TV signal from anywhere on the planet. 

Doesn’t this pose a question for the BBC? You can either remain a purely national institution, with a global news service and some channels around the world. Or you can go further and stream BBC content across the globe? 

According to BBC research there are over 5m Britons living abroad, many others with British ancestry, and many, many others who admire British TV and its values. (OK there those channels outside the UK already, but this would be a different sort of presence, like listening to Five Live in America on my TuneIn Radio app).

How would they pay? Pay-TV is now television’s fastest growing revenue stream. 

If the BBC is to reach those Brits abroad, they cannot be License payers – they will have to be subscribers. (Yes, I know, a lot of content is licensed by territory. That’s one of many legacy problems that needs  to be addressed.)

Subscription has to be the right choice, doesn't it?.

The BBC currently faces charges from other UK companies that it is too big, too dominant, that it has a “chilling” effect on all other endeavours. The BBC itself has acknowledged that it should focus more on excellent content. Many want to go further, freeze or take part of the license fee, detach BBC Worldwide, etc. These arguments have weight because the BBC is largely paid for by what amounts to a public subsidy.

Isn't the right solution for the BBC to start to consider a switch to voluntary subscription, at home and abroad? 

Voluntary payment would open the BBC up to the world and offer new opportunities. In Europe we are part of a market of over of 400m people who are used to English language programmes in prime time, dubbed or subtitled. Millions more around the world speak or want to speak English. Would trying harder to reach these markets and offering the chance to watch the same content as we see in Britain mean short-changing the British public? 

I can't see any evidence for that. The English content that plays in non-Anglophone territories is, invariably, the best of its kind. And the biggest audience will surely remain the home audience. They will always come first.

Of course there will be arguments about other welfare issues. Many of them I probably support. I am confident that they can be dealt with, like free access to basic services. 

And of course there will be arguments about Public Service Television. In your heart of hearts you must know that many of those arguments are hot air. True public service TV – that which a market cannot provide, that which is so important to social welfare that it must be widely available -- is a very small proportion of all that the BBC offers. 

And you must also be aware that the License fee is, for many, both unjust and unfair. (And how is it going to be enforced when the country has universal broadband?)

I am looking forward to hearing you speak at the Edinburgh Television Festival in August. I hope you will inspire us with an ambitious future for the BBC.


With best wishes, David.

This article was originally published on David Graham's blog

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

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