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!