BBC chief Tony Hall delivered a wide-ranging speech Monday in which he defended the public broadcaster’s license fee and also took a shot at the increasing dominance of American culture over the airwaves. “For the amount that Netflix spent on the first two series of House Of Cards, we were able to make 14 drama series,” said Hall in a bullish address at New Broadcasting House.
The BBC has been under pressure recently to find alternative ways to fund its operations. Last week, a report from the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee said that 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.
Hall today defended the need for the license fee to continue while also recognizing the need to adapt to a digital marketplace.
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“We’ve always said that the license fee should be updated to reflect changing times. I welcome the Committee’s endorsement of our proposal to require people to pay the license fee even if they only watch catch-up television,” said Hall. “The committee has suggested another route to modernizing the license fee — a universal household levy. Both proposals have the same goal in mind: adapting the license fee for the Internet age. This is vital. Because I believe we need and we will need what the license fee — in whatever form — makes happen, more than ever.”
The question of the BBC’s license fee has long been a subject of debate amongst politicians and rival broadcasters. James Murdoch once famously attacked the notion of taxpayer’s money being used to fund the BBC as leaving the corporation “incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country.”
Hall, however, argued the need to protect the BBC’s funding, particularly in the interest of media freedoms. “As American media giants colonize the world, supporting a thriving British culture will be essential,” argued Hall. “And in a world where trust is at a premium, which has more heat than light, more noise than signal, we will need the BBC more than ever as a trusted guide — the place you go to find out what’s really happening and why.”
Hall also announced the creation of a new production division BBC Studios, potentially one of the biggest shake-ups in the broadcaster’s history. In a move designed to keep the BBC competitive with the likes of Netflix and other global content creators, all drama, entertainment, comedy and factual program-making departments — except for children’s, sport and current affairs — will be housed in the new division which will continue to sit within the BBC. The next step, if approved, will see BBC Studios become a wholly-owned subsidiary, operating at arm’s length, and able to sell its shows to other broadcasters. By making its own-produced shows available to other channels, the BBC is hoping to remove the current 50% quota for in-house productions so that it is able to commission more shows from the independent production sector.
“I want production to play a great part in this new golden age of broadcasting. This is important. We want to get it right. We will get it right. And we’ll take our time to ensure we do just that,” said Hall. “We co-produce with all the leading content commissioners in the U.S. and from around the world. We’ve commissioned Parade’s End with HBO; Life Story with Discovery, France Television and The Open University; and Luther with our very own BBC America. It is these partnerships, coupled with the power of the license fee, that have enabled us to make programs of such ambition and quality.”
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