The UK government proposes that the licence fee will continue to fund the BBC for the next decade, postponing the perennial problem of how to pay for public service programming in the digital future.

The Royal Charter under which the BBC operates was first granted in 1927 and has been subsequently reviewed every ten years. The next decade is likely to see profound changes in technology, with the completion of the move to digital delivery that could transform television beyond recognition.

The BBC in the digital age
Tessa Jowell, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, has now published the government white paper A public service for all: the BBC in the digital age.

The white paper, a statement of proposed government policy, confirms that the licence fee will continue for the 10-year term of the next charter, with reviews in that period into the scope for other methods of funding the BBC beyond 2016 and the possibility of distributing public funding more widely to other broadcasters.

The BBC is expected to act as a ‘trusted guide’ for the public, particularly through the process of switchover to digital television, with the purpose of the corporation extended beyond the original requirement to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ to “building digital Britain”. The remit is retained to “develop new interactive and web-based services, as demand grows for new media, such as broadband”.

The most significant change is a new trust that is proposed to replace the governors and oversee the work of the BBC. Media regulator Ofcom will be responsible for providing market impact assessment for any public value test applied to new services.

Tessa Jowell said: “The BBC white paper sets out a unique solution, for a unique organisation, in a unique set of circumstances — a genuine public service for all in the digital age.”

Changing channels
The white paper maintains that “It seems clear that the traditional setting of the television in the corner of the living room, or the radio in the kitchen or car, will still be with us for the foreseeable future. Most people still want to sit on their sofa to watch–free at the point of use–quality programmes on a TV set.”

However, it observes that the development of digital technologies has already dramatically transformed the broadcasting environment, opening up new ways of providing and consuming content, via digital television and radio, the internet, or mobile phones.

The pace of change is likely to accelerate. “Information and programme content will become increasingly personalised and accessible ‘on demand’ via a whole range of different platforms and devices. In other words, the digital revolution will make it easier for people to watch what they want, when they want and where they want.”

TV licence
The BBC represents incredible value for its viewers and for the country, but whether a compulsory licence on television receivers will still be the best way to fund the organisation in a decade remains an unresolved question to which there are no easy answers.

In response to public feeling, the Government aims to consider diverting offenders from the criminal justice system. Imprisoning single mothers that are unable to pay fines for not having a television licence is perhaps not the best way to build digital Britain.

The BBC was originally paid for by a licence on radio receivers and a similar system was adopted in many European countries. In most cases such radio licences have been abolished and national broadcasters fund their radio stations from television licence revenues. Within a decade, conventional broadcast television could conceivably be relegated to the same status as a medium as radio is today.

The BBC became the formal licensing authority with responsibility for the administration of the television licensing system in 1991, and the television licensing provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Act are now encompassed by the Communications Act of 2003.

As the BBC’s own media correspondent Torin Douglas observes: “By 2016, when every home will have digital TV and most will have they internet, there’ll be other practical ways of paying for the BBC. It could be subscription, or pay-per-view, or some new method”.

Few would disagree that the BBC is an important institution that is valued by the public, but it remains uncertain how the organisation will be funded in the future when most viewers are likely to be paying for subscription services, with the ability to stream and download programming from anywhere in the world.

ITN, the news service of the main commercial television network, turned to none other than informitv for its views, interviewing “William Cooper, media analyst” as the white paper was published, providing the sole source of comment in response to the announcement by Tessa Jowell.

“As a result of this changing landscape, we really need to redefine what television is,” he said. “The Television Licensing Authority is convinced that television is any broadcast channel that is received, whether it is on a laptop or a mobile phone, or indeed a television set. I think that has yet to be tested.”

The BBC has pioneered new technologies of distribution, and successfully remained relevant in the digital age. Ironically, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define what constitutes a television service or a television receiver.

Live television channels are already available over the internet on a trial basis, and the BBC is likely to seek to offer this as a service in the future. In theory that means any compatible computer is capable of receiving a television service, whether or not is used for that purpose, so under existing legislation will presumably require a television licence.

As informitv observed in its recent report on the impact of broadband on broadcast: “Changes in the technology of distribution mean that funding public service broadcasting through a compulsory television license may eventually become unsustainable and unenforceable”.

“The debate over what the licence fee is and how future-proof it might be seems to be more pressing by the day,” wrote Emily Bell in The Guardian.

The definition of the role of the BBC in terms of those that pay the licence fee is also absurd. Former BBC director general Greg Dyke, writing in his column in The Independent, said: “I have to admit I’ve never met anyone who describes themselves as a ‘licence fee payer'”. Apparently, when he used to speak of viewers and listeners, the BBC press office told him that the BBC liked to refer to its audiences as licence fee payers, a term entirely invented by the BBC as a way of referring to its customers.

Rather than presenting any real solution, the white paper effectively maintains the status quo, a position that suits the government, the BBC, and indeed the competition, but fails to engage fully with the changing technology landscape which is beginning to change the very definition of television and broadcasting.

The government is inviting comments on its white paper which it says will be taken into account during the final phase of the Charter review process.