How Might Doctor Who Survive a Post-Licence Fee BBC?

The phrase ‘changing broadcasting landscape’ is used so often to describe the rapidly altering way we consume television it has become a cliché, but what might it mean for the future of Doctor Who? On the face of it, the programme has rarely seemed more secure. A landmark anniversary celebrated in 2013, a successful transition to a new star, continued strong ratings, worldwide popularity and public enthusiasm, its leading performers and production personnel treated like rock stars… It’s certainly not hard to find reasons why the show will be on our screens for a long time to come.

But the future of the BBC, its direction, role and purpose seem less than clear. The corporation remains popular and trusted among the public in spite of well-publicised controversies, scandals and embarrassments in recent years. The BBC’s current Charter expires at the end of 2016 and whilst there’s no real doubt that the organisation will continue to serve the public after that date, there are some very real questions being raised about the broadcaster’s future model, and how it should be paid for.

One of the tasks for Britain’s next government will be to negotiate the Charter’s renewal and agree the level of the licence fee, which has been frozen since 2010. A recent intervention by Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, sparked interest among fans of Doctor Who (and many of the BBC’s other popular programmes) with his call for the corporation to stop producing popular entertainment programming and concentrate solely on ‘public service’ output, with a resulting cut of around two-thirds in the licence fee. Cue headlines along the lines of ‘Farage to Exterminate Doctor Who’

That proposal is, it’s fair to say, not likely to make it to the statute book any time soon, but the post-election period is likely to see a widespread debate about the future of the licence fee. The BBC Director General Tony Hall has called for the licence fee to be ‘updated to reflect changing times’. To him, this means making it applicable to households which only watch catch-up television on iPlayer, and a move towards a compulsory household levy for broadcasting. For others it means a subscription model, or perhaps paying only for what you consume as a viewer or listener.

What will emerge from all of this is uncertain, but some kind of change seems inevitable. As far as Doctor Who goes, the programme is undoubtedly one of the BBC’s biggest hits, both in the UK and overseas. Were the BBC to be compelled to become a more market-driven organisation it’s not so hard to envisage a time when BBC Worldwide would take over the production of the series as well as its marketing and distribution, with a resulting emphasis on exploiting the commercial possibilities of the programme even further than what we’ve seen to date. Doctor Who: The Movie would surely then be only a matter of time, whatever the production team’s doubts

Or perhaps the production would be taken over by another company? Disney? Google? Amazon Prime? The list of possible candidates who’d be interested in taking on such an important ‘brand’ as Doctor Who with its global reach is a long one. The rumoured move by Jeremy Clarkson and his erstwhile Top Gear colleagues to Netflix may be an indicator of a possible future timeline here.

Russell T Davies has often spoken in interviews of his concern that the end of the licence fee, if such a move is ever made, will be a dark day for public service broadcasting; that we won’t truly appreciate the value of that system until after it’s gone… and by then it’ll be too late to go back. Whether the compulsory levy idea gains momentum will be an interesting development to follow, although it’s hard to imagine an incoming government (of whatever make-up or political colour) rushing to implement what would be, in effect, a new form of poll tax.

Let’s not be alarmed unduly. Doctor Who is not about to be axed, privatised or otherwise hived off to the highest bidder. But the long-term decisions over the future of the BBC will surely have an impact on the series, and every other BBC programme in the years ahead.

What do you think? Is it time for the licence fee to be consigned to history? Are streaming and subscriptions the way forward? How will all of this affect Doctor Who? Let us know!

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  1. Stephen Beck says:

    It will be an outrage if doctor who ended because of some mp who wants to be prime minister, he is the new enemy of Doctor who

    • Doctor Moo says:

      He’s not even an MP (yet) and his party only has two MPs as is. But, and I may be wrong, I expect there will be more after the election including him. Fear not though, his party still won’t have enough power in Westminster to influence something like that.

      • bar says:

        Remember Richard Franklin (Mike Yates) once stood for UKIP – I hope he disagrees with ditching the beeb!

        • Doctor Moo says:

          Ditching the BBC would be beyond stupid. UKIP won’t get votes for that, they’ll get votes for leaving the EU and from the people who believe the (false) media presentation of them being a racist party.
          But I don’t want to get political here.

  2. Doctor Moo says:

    Is it time for the license fee to be consigned to history? No. Don’t talk rubbish.

  3. “Say, I’ve got a way to help fix our budget problems: let’s cancel the three shows that are making the most money for us! That makes perfect sense…”

  4. Guy says:

    I’m torn. On the one hand. I spent 17 years without Doctor Who (other than the movie), didn’t like it and am pleased to have been able to give up. Our drama in general is world class, although we need to watch out for the current crop of superb stuff from the US usurping our place as the best of the best.

    Then again, rationally, why should my personal entertainment be paid for from the public purse? I can see news and information being vital, but Doctor Who and EastEnders? I find it hard to get a rational argument in its favour going in my head. I understand it brings in a load of cash but if we were starting a State broadcaster now, seriously, would we even consider adding soaps and entertainments?

  5. Individual of Doom says:

    Getting rid of license fees would be daft.

  6. Ranger says:

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

    I have to be really careful here – the following comments are completely my own point of view and do not necessarily represent the views of any organisation I might be connected with.

    Without the licence fee there will be few if no history, science, minority interest programmes. The original purpose of the BBC was to educate as well as entertain. I have learnt a lot from such wonderful programmes such as Wonders of the Solar System/Universe. As the public broadcaster, the BBC has a legal remit to, for instance, provide religious programming among other things. Given this legal constraint, the licence fee seems the fairest and best possible way to fund the BBC. Paying only for what you watch is the quickest way to get channels full of nothing but soaps. If that’s what you want, then there are already digital channels out there with this format; but to me, the best thing about the BBC is the eclectic programming it offers. The licence fee allows the BBC to experiment and commission things that would not normally see the light of day if purely commercial considerations were taken into account. It allows the BBC time to let programmes find their own level – for instance, Only Fools and Horses was a flop for its first 2 series, but the BBC gave it a chance and the rest, as they say, is history. If it was Fox, Only Fools would have been cancelled after the first 3 episodes. Not that I’m bitter about Firefly, you understand.

    • TheLazyWomble says:

      Also Men Behaving Badly-which started out on ITV. BBC gave it the chance to find its level.

      • Doctor Moo says:

        Or even revived Doctor Who!

        • Cryer says:

          Well not really because that didn’t start out badly at all. It had high viewing figures from the start and all the way through the first season.

          • Doctor Moo says:

            Yes, but they took a chance on it. Doctor Who at that point was still considered a bit of a joke by the public.

          • Cryer says:

            That’s debateable. I mean as soon as it came back it immediately got huge viewing figures. If the public considered it a joke then they wouldn’t have tuned in in their millions to watch it straight away. I agree that it was a risk by the BBC. If it wasn’t for RTD’s prestige and Jane Tranter’s efforts then it would never have happened. Several high ups, including the infamous Michael Grade, actively tried to stop it coming back in 2005 as well.

          • Doctor Moo says:

            I’d put that down to Russell and Chris. Both were well respected, still are to this day, which must have had an effect.

          • Cryer says:

            Russell and Chris may have been what convinced the BBC but I think it was almost certainly the return of the show that brought in the public in such numbers. I wager many of them remembered just how great it was back in the 70s. Doctor Who would have been such a huge part of so many people’s lives growing up. The show itself would have probably been a much bigger draw than Chris or RTD.

          • Doctor Moo says:

            Fair point.
            But you’d be mad to deny their influence on its success.

          • Cryer says:

            I’m certainly not denying that. Especially RTD, who knew exactly how to accomplish the very difficult job of bringing the show back in a way that was true to everything that had come before but was also very accessible to a modern-day audience.

          • Doctor Moo says:

            I know… how he did it so well and made it look so effortless is a testament to the man’s ability, burping bin notwithstanding. I doubt many other writers could have managed it as well as he did.

          • bar says:

            but they were going to drop it after the War Games, and the amazing first season of Pertwee may never have happened, if it had been a commercial decision.

    • K Doctor Who News says:

      In fairness, you’re talking about a show that was first broadcast 34 years ago. It could be argued that in the post-Birt BBC, that “experiment and commission” aspect of the BBC is long gone.

  7. Videonitekatt says:

    BBC will just have to become a commercial broadcaster.

  8. Mr McJohnson says:

    Getting rid of the license fee will be good for my wallet but it worries me that doing so would eventually force the BBC to introduce commercials and thus lose what makes it great.

  9. Planet of the Deaf says:

    I’m happy to pay the license fee, but if it was abolished I imagine BBC might move to an HBO type subscription model rather than adverts

  10. garethothelass says:

    I really don’t, and never have got the problem with the license fee. It’s the best value for money £12.44 I spend a month, bar none.

  11. Namnoot says:

    To see how a post-license fee Doctor Who might go, you need only look at Torchwood when it became a co-production of Starz. Not to much in terms of stories and the like, but it was clear that answering to different masters resulted in things like a larger number of US actors and the decision to film most of it in the US. Neither of these would be insurmountable for Doctor Who, and certainly it’s filmed in the US before and the occasional US actor does sneak in, but there are those who dismiss the 1996 TV movie as being true Doctor Who because it wasn’t filmed in the UK. And they could have just as easily cast a non-Brit as the Doctor for that, but fortunately they didn’t. A post-licence fee DW might need to start answering to different masters who might, for example, insist that a certain type of actor be cast as the Doctor, or that stories become more directed towards, say, US audiences. I remember when The New Avengers was seeking financial backing for its second season it got it from French and Canadian sources. The result: episodes had to be filmed in France and in Canada, which is where the infamous New Avengers in Canada episodes came from.

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