Is the licence fee value for money?

On 19 May Radio 4’s “You and Yours” hosted a debate on whether the licence fee was thought to be value for money. It raised as many questions as it answered.

David Elstein
4 June 2015

Image: Flickr/ salleygreentree

You can still hear the 40-minute programme on the iPlayer. It is an excellent example of good BBC journalism, interweaving phone calls, emails and two professional opinions: Alan Yentob in favour, David Cox against. All credit to producer Olive Clancy and presenter Winifred Robinson. Of course, being on Radio 4, participants tended towards the articulate middle-class for whom the BBC and Radio 4 in particular is catnip. They value radio more highly than television, and do not differentiate between domestic and World Service broadcasts in their estimation.

That you do not need to pay the licence fee to listen to radio did not invalidate the debate. Indeed, one caller from France said he would be happy to subscribe for the BBC to be made available to him. By contrast, another asked why he could not watch non-BBC TV channels without risk of being locked up.

Those who had reservations about the licence fee were more critical of BBC TV than of the radio services. More than one suggested that there ought to be a lower fee – say £60 – for a BBC that stripped out the glossy TV shows of the type available anywhere, concentrating on the BBC’s unique offerings. One caller noted that a licence fee was an anachronism in the age of unlimited on-demand availability of content. Another insisted that the BBC was the best value broadcaster in the world, entirely on the basis of the quality of BBC World Service news bulletins she heard during the first Gulf War when she was living in Kuwait (at a time, it should be remembered, when the World Service was funded by the Foreign Office, not the licence fee).

Another lady, living on a low income, was happy to pay the licence fee to ensure her children could continue to receive the TV and radio channels that had nurtured her childhood - her parents would never have paid for the BBC voluntarily. Other callers objected to high BBC salaries and perceived wastefulness.

Alternatives were briefly canvassed and Alan Yentob raised a serious objection to one of the options considered by the recent Commons Media Select Committee report (see my post on this): a ring-fenced slice of income tax, which, he said, would remove the visible link of seeming accountability to all BBC households that the licence fee represented. He might also have mentioned that, in excusing millions of non-taxpayers from the obligation to fund the BBC, either everyone else would have to pay closer to £200 a year than the current £145-50, or the BBC would have to make do with less income: admirable in terms of social equity, worrying in terms of practicality.

The programme never addressed the paradoxes implicit in its title. The first is that if the great majority of people deem the BBC to be “good value” they would presumably pay for it voluntarily, so removing the need for compulsion. If the great majority deemed it “poor value”, however, continuing with compulsory payment would seem iniquitous. The second is that the present system appears to be designed to force those who see the licence fee as “poor value” to continue paying it so as to keep down its cost for people who regard it as “good value”, not least because of the forced subsidy from the first group. These paradoxes may be put to the test if the government proceeds with the policy of decriminalising licence fee evasion.

Meanwhile, I repeated a check test I last carried out in February when I was giving a lecture to U3A. Then, I measured all the hours the four terrestrial BBC TV channels broadcast in a week, and categorised them. Of 460 hours, 46% were repeats, 12% night-time fillers, 11% acquired films and series, 8% low-cost feature series, 8% live news, 4% sport, 3% documentaries, 2.5% quizzes, 2.5% entertainment, 1.3% soap-style drama and 1.3% peak-time short-form drama.

Last week, out of 461 broadcast hours, 46% were repeats, 12% night-time fillers, 12% live news and current affairs, 9% acquired films and series, 8% low-cost feature series, 6% live sport and outside broadcasts, 2% documentaries, 1.5% entertainment, 1% quizzes, 1% soap-style drama and 0.5% peak-time short-form drama (two hours across four channels). Each of these weeks of TV output costs about £52 million.

Does that represent value for money? It is hard to resist the conclusion that all the distinctive high-quality content offered by the BBC last week could have been accommodated by at most two channels, and perhaps just one.

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