BBC Drama Chief Says Scrapping The Licence Fee Could Blow A Hole In The TV Drama Boom

Piers Wenger

The BBC’s drama chief Piers Wenger has bristled at the idea of the British broadcaster becoming a subscription service amid growing talk of the government abandoning the licence fee.

During an event in London on Monday, Wenger made a passionate case for the BBC’s place in a TV ecology that is becoming increasingly dominated by monolithic U.S. companies like Netflix, Amazon, Comcast and Apple. He did so while unveiling four new dramas from first-time TV writers and providing a sneak peek at shows including Netflix co-production The Serpent.

Wenger talked up the BBC as an incubator for talent, with a diverse audience across the world, a billion drama views on iPlayer, and a nose for ideas that spark a “feeding frenzy” internationally. “We may not be the newest or the richest, but we can still be the first and we can still be the best,” he told an audience of journalists.

This could all change, Wenger said, if British prime minister Boris Johnson forced the BBC to move to a Netflix-style funding mechanism when its charter is renewed in 2027. The notion that the licence fee is outdated is gaining traction in the UK, with the likes of Helen Mirren arguing that its days are numbered. A subscription model is emerging as a preferred alternative, despite being fraught with complexity.

Wenger suggested that a subscription-funded BBC would not have the same public service mission and would become narrower in its outlook. Asked by Deadline how it would impact his commissioning decisions, Wenger said: “It would change it completely because we wouldn’t be making it for a BBC as a universal service… I think it would be a massive loss not to have the breadth of drama that we make and to be able to serve the whole country.”

In opening remarks, he painted a picture of a world in which the BBC does not exist in its current form. “Without the BBC, the drama market would be less vigorous. We are the primary incubator of storytelling talent in the UK, and in a sector which is so heavily commercialized, I truly believe that there is nowhere else in the world where you can be as creatively free as you can be at the BBC,” he explained.

Wenger also echoed a familiar piece of BBC rhetoric on the streaming wars: The broadcaster does not have to make decisions based on the recommendations of a computer. “We are fortunate in not having an algorithm that we need to put ideas through. That is a key difference between the way we work and the SVODs work,” he said.

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