21 October, 2007

Ban the TV Licence ... but then what?

We live is a mutually-supportive society. You don't just pay for the bits you want; you pay what you can afford so that we all have a good standard of living. It's how you were born, it's how you'll be looked after when you get old, it's how we avoid a situation where a nurse has to rifle through your wallet before they operate on you. Yet some people take real issue against the TV licence and think their lives would be immeasurably better if they just paid for the stuff they want.

The first thing to remember though is what the TV licence money is spent on. It doesn't just pay for two terrestrial channels, five digital channels, four national radio stations, a stack of local and digital radio stations and bbc.co.uk. It also pays for the infrastructure that allows you to watch other channels. For instance, it funds the facilities Channel Four use to broadcast through. It pays for the rental of studio facilities that other companies like ITV use part-time that, without that financial input from the BBC, wouldn't be able to be sustained. The licence fee is something that is finely balanced and its removal would undermine British broadcasting, which is why anyone who argues for the abolition of the licence fee hasn't done their homework - or has an ulterior motive (at a guess, profit at the expense of what you want). Murdoch might think he could do without a BBC monopoly, but he couldn't provide the services needed in the UK, and he has no interest in doing so either. Just look at the amount of homegrown quality drama on his channels.

Okay, have you finished doing that? Good.

It was decided long ago that the BBC gets all the licence fee and the commercial sector gets all the advertising. This is why you don't get commercial advertising on licence-fee-funded BBC services (you think you do? Look again - you don't. BBC Worldwide and UK TV are not licence-fee-funded). By ensuring that the BBC doesn't take revenue from advertisers during its broadcasts, this allows ITV, Sky and other commercial networks to survive. This is also why the BBC's audience share is more important than ratings - if the BBC gets a 50% share - wow, great. If it gets a 60% share - bad news. This would damage the other channels. Which is why the BBC has to provide both populist entertainment AND niche special interest programmes. If it only did big commercial programmes, it would damage British TV irreperably - not least because it would cease to serve the whole nation by trying to ensure there's at least something on that will interest you enough times of the year.

Your TV licence also pays for services that you might not use yourself, but would be grossly unfair to leave to subscription. Why should only deaf people pay for the technology for subtitling, when hearing people don't need it yet but might in the future? What about children's TV? They can't pay for that, so who does? We do, to ensure that the benefits we enjoyed while growing up are there for the next generation, for past generations no longer in the workplace and people who through no fault of their own are unable to work, such as the disabled.

Part of the licence fee is also invested in the future - there's an entire division called 'future media & technology' which develops things like the iPlayer (which, as I mentioned before, you don't actually need a TV licence for, if you don't actually watch live streamed content on it, even though your TV licence paid for it - neat, eh?). Your TV licence pays for BBC archives to be able to store these programmes for future use, although it *doesn't* wholly pay for restoration - that's partly funded by BBC Worldwide and other commercial BBC services to ensure they can continue to export programmes and make them commercially available. It also *doesn't* pay for you to see the programmes again and again for free; outside of a window of about 18 months, you need to pay for the rights to rebroadcast a programme again, which is why we get endless repeats of 'Two Pints of Lager' (covered by a current rights agreement to broadcast within a specific period of time) but don't get many terrestrial repeats of old dramas from the 1970s, because the cost of paying the writers and actors is just too high to do that very often.

On a sidenote there, it's funny how much importance is being placed on the BBC using repeats to cover the shortfall of the licence fee settlement. People want to see classic comedies and dramas... but apparently don't want repeats. Apparently, a repeat is another chance to see something you didn't want to see in the first place, while classic TV is, er, 'Only Fools and Horses' and 'Doctor Who', which remain the most-requested programme for repeats, despite being commercially available and despite them never getting particularly huge ratings when they are repeated. Like so much of television, even repeats are a special interest.

Just a final bit of maths here. If you only watch 'Doctor Who' and 'Doctor Who Confidential' and nothing else on any other channel, then if we apply the iTunes business model, you've watched the equivalent of £49.14 of content for just 13 weeks of TV. If you were to only watch the equivalent amount of TV hours (just 90 minutes) every week throughout the year, your iTunes bill would come to £196.56.

If your kids watch 'Totally Doctor Who' too, that goes up to £71.82 for the duration of its run, that goes up to £294.84 (iTunes charges the same for a 30-minute TV show as it does for a 50-minute one). Now, factor in all the other shows you might want to watch that have an interview with John Barrowman, or David Tennant, or "Children in Need' specials and that comes to...

Oh, wait, iTunes doesn't have any British shows. Anyone got any other ideas for how we can pay for this stuff?

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