The BBC is bracing itself for the publication this week of a government “green paper” that is likely to spell out the need for top-to-bottom reforms at the venerable public broadcaster. Everything appears to be on the table, including questions about its size and funding sources. Yahoo Europe chief Dawn Airey, former Shine Group CEO Alex Mahon, and Shazam chair Andrew Fisher are among the eight industry execs appointed to an advisory board announced by Culture secretary John Whittingdale.
Others tapped for the board include Colette Bowe, chairman of the Banking Standards Board and former chair of UK media regulator Ofcom; Darren Henley, CEO of the Arts Council England; Ashley Highfield, CEO of Johnston Press and former director at the BBC; founder/CEO of NewAsianPost.com and Diversity UK Lopa Patel; and Stewart Purvis, formerly editor-in-chief and CEO of ITN.
Airey has spoken previously of her belief that the license fee should be cut and that the BBC should charge for its online content. The review, which will see the board meeting at least half a dozen times before reporting to the government with its recommendations, comes after some rare good news last week for the BBC with the agreement, in principle, with the government for the much-debated license fee to remain as the primary means of funding the BBC for at least another five years, as well as for that fee to rise in line with inflation.
There are fears, however, that the license fee deal will bring with it a heavy price in terms of the corporate structure and goals. Whittingdale is known to be something of a hawk when it comes to the BBC and has already questioned the organization’s claim that it needs to pursue mass ratings. What happens post-2020 in terms of the license fee also remains up in the air.
The BBC’s existing charter, which is negotiated with the government every 10 years, runs out at the end of 2016. It seems certain the BBC will have to scale back its operations as a result of the review. Areas believed to be coming under particular scrutiny will be the BBC website, the size of which has already been questioned publicly by Chancellor George Osborne; its news coverage; and the general question of what kind of service the BBC should offer, i.e. popular vs. niche programming.
It’s been a rough time recently for the BBC. The corporation has had to announce cuts of more than 1,000 jobs as part of a restructuring caused by a $234 million gap in license-fee income for 2016-2017 as well as face a bill in excess of $1 billion for new welfare charges. The public broadcaster is being asked to absorb the cost of the license fee for viewers over age 75 as the government attempts to shift the cost, currently covered by the Department for Work and Pensions, off its books.
The pubcaster has been under pressure to find alternative ways to fund its operations. Earlier this year, a report from the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee said the TV license is “becoming harder and harder to justify.” UK households currently pay a compulsory charge of around $250 a year to help fund the BBC. Some have called on a Netflix-style subscription model, allowing households not to pay for the BBC if they did not wish to watch its programs. BBC Director General Tony Hall has consistently defended the need for the license fee to continue while also recognizing the need to adapt to a digital marketplace.
“As the dust settles after a challenging week of negotiation over funding and debate about the future of the BBC three things are clear,” Hall wrote in this Sunday’s Observer newspaper. “First, the BBC has negotiated a strong financial settlement from the government that gives us stability and clarity, but we should be in no doubt that the charter process will be tough. Second, despite noises to the contrary, the BBC is as independent today as it has ever been. There has been no fundamental change in the relationship between government and corporation. Nor will there be under my watch. Third, although the BBC used the pre-budget window of opportunity to reach a fair deal, it is not a process we would have chosen and it is not a process that should be repeated.”