The BBC Is A Pay TV Operation

Nigel Walley – February 2009

I opened my bank statement the other day to see how much I paid Sky.  What I found interesting wasn’t the Sky number, but the line underneath. By some quirk, the direct debit that I pay to TV licencing was listed underneath. I pay just over £11 a month to the BBC for TV and radio.  Now, as a middle class middle Englander, I understand how much value I squeeze out of the BBC for that money.  I probably use way over the average amount of BBC output, and don’t begrudge it.  What I find odd is that the industry still lumps the BBC together with ITV, C4 and Five in our discussions about free to air television.

The BBC is quite clearly not a free to air broadcaster.  I pay a subscription every month to access the content and it is quite clearly a Pay-TV operator in terms of the way it is financed.  The only differences between the BBC and the other Pay-TV operators are that it is a compulsory subscription and that they have a variety of public service obligations in return.

While this may seem like semantics, the question of whether they are a Pay-TV operator or not becomes quite pertinent when you consider a different question:  ‘does free-to-air have a future?’  This normally would have been an absurd question to ask but if you look at the revenues this year so far for ITV, C4 and Five it is clear that it may no longer be quite so stupid.  The cash crisis affecting the PSBs operating in the FTA sector (apologies  – couldn’t resist the acronym clash) mean that we may be seeing the beginnings of a vicious circle where programming budgets on the non-BBC channels decline to the point where their content is demonstratably of inferior to the BBCs, so they lose share to the BBC, they then earn less from advertising and therefore have less to spend on programming. Whether a circle is vicious or virtuous often depends on the direction from which you are looking.

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