If you’re looking to spark a debate just pose the question: should we still have to pay the BBC licence fee?
While there has been increased media coverage on this issue in recent months, this debate has been simmering under the surface for quite a while now. There are those among us that have always fought against the annual charge, claiming “I don’t watch the BBC, so why do I need to pay?”. But the controversy has boiled over of late for a wide variety of reasons.
Firstly there was the news last year that the over 75s, traditionally exempt from paying the fee, would now have to cough up if they were planning to continue watching traditional TV. Then, amidst this controversy, came the news that the licence fee is set to rise from 1st April 2020. Finally, and to confuse matters even further, there are now rumours from No 10 that refusal to pay the fee will no longer be classed as a criminal offence.
Clearly then, the BBC licence fee has risen on both the public and political agenda and Boris Johnson has already confirmed that it’s something that ‘needs looking at’. But how have we reached this stage where the merit of the licence fee, and the BBC service as whole, is coming under such close scrutiny?
The Netflix effect
One major shift over the last decade has been how we consume media. The rise of streaming services such as YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV means we no longer need to rely on our aerials for our evening entertainment, or even our TVs for that matter. No, we are now consuming our favourite shows whenever and wherever we want to, over the internet and on our laptops, tablets, and even smartphones.
So, it will come as no surprise that this ‘Netflix effect’ has had a drastic impact on traditional TV channels. The number of hours we spend watching traditional TV has dropped year on year; our younger generations are watching a staggering 40 per cent less than they did seven years ago. This has led to spending on TV by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 dropping by nearly £1 billion over the last two decades.
But that doesn’t mean we aren’t still watching our favourite programmes. Almost half of all UK households now subscribe to streaming services like Netflix. Furthermore, our young generation are now spending more than an hour each day watching YouTube. Even adults are using the website for 30 minutes per day. As the way we consume media has changed, it is clear why the BBC licence fee could be seen as a relic of the past, and something that requires renewed consideration.
But the BBC is still core to our British identity. Is there really a chance that it could lose its place in our hearts and minds? One thing we can be certain of is that it is fighting back. Late in 2019 BritBox was launched, a streaming service to rival Netflix and Amazon by the BBC and ITV. The problem is the streaming market is already saturated, so it has struggled to entice users to sign up, especially when they are already being forced to pay the licence fee.
Where does politics come into play?
The latest attack against the licence fee from Downing Street has won public appeal. Figures suggest that more than 60 per cent of us are now in favour of scrapping the fee, but do we need to take No 10s recent stance against the broadcaster with a pinch of salt?
It has been suggested that many Tories are angry at its coverage of last year’s general election. Questions about whether or not the government now has a vendetta against the BBC are rife. Although we would hope that such a move would not be a retaliation to its election coverage, Boris Johnson suggesting “we will whack it” does suggest otherwise.
With this in mind, what does the future hold for the licence fee? It’s a difficult question to provide a firm answer to. While few would believe that the BBC as a service no longer has a place, there is no doubt that technological innovation has revolutionised the way we consume media. The licence fee is increasingly feeling like a relic of days gone by, so while it may not be scrapped for good, we do anticipate significant changes in the very near future.
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