BBC Director-General Tony Hall has come out with a full-blooded defense of the broadcaster’s values and right to go after big ratings. In a statement published alongside the BBC’s Annual Report, Hall was forthright in stating his belief that the BBC should retain the right to remain a mainstream broadcaster with diverse and accessible content. He cited successes such as Wolf Hall, The Honourable Woman and the BBC’s ongoing coverage of the Middle East as examples of “a year we can be proud of.”
His comments come two days before the government, which is looking for ways to achieve cuts to the BBC’s output, publishes a top-to-tail review of the corporation. The supervisory board overseeing that process, appointed by the government, is chaired by Yahoo Europe chief Dawn Airey, who has spoken previously of her belief that the license fee should be cut and that the BBC should charge for its online content.
“Like any big organization, of course, there are always things we can do better,” said Hall. “But, on any measure, this is a world-class organization, hugely valued by our audiences. And any debate about the BBC must start with that undeniable fact…This debate matters hugely because we face a big choice about the kind of BBC we want in the future…[W]e must reinvent public service broadcasting for young audiences, whose behaviour is changing the fastest. We must make the transition to an internet-first BBC, across all our genres and services. This is vital if the UK is to continue to punch above its weight as one of the most creative nations in the world. And grow Britain’s commercial success, and its global influence. ”
Hall also pulled no punches with his belief that BBC Worldwide, the commercial distribution side of the company, should remain part of the BBC and not be splintered off, as some have suggested. “To fund great programs in an era of global competition for talent and ideas, we must work even harder at the partnership between the license fee and our commercial arm, BBC Worldwide,” said Hall. “Seventy-one per cent of the funding of BBC One’s Life Story was commercial funding. The license fee paid for less than half the budget of some of our biggest dramas last year. Worldwide makes its money by taking BBC programs and exploiting them commercially. It’s an integral part of the BBC and gives license fee payers better content for less investment. So, any proposal to remove it from the BBC simply doesn’t make economic sense.”
It’s been a rough time recently for the BBC. The corporation has had to announce cuts of more than 1000 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.
The impassioned statement is likely to go down well with BBC staffers, who have looked on with increasing trepidation as what appears to be a concerted campaign by both the government and some execs in the private media to cut the BBC down to size.
This debate represents a clash between two different views of the future. The alternative view “prefers a much diminished BBC,” Hall said, adding, “I don’t support this view. Nor does the British public. Nor do programme-makers across the creative sector. The BBC does not belong to its staff. The BBC does not belong to t.he Government. The BBC belongs to the country. The public are our shareholders. They pay for us. So it is their voice that will matter most in this debate.”