The TV License: A Defence
For some time now, there has been uneasiness over the subject of the TV license. First introduced in 1946, many have questioned the license fees relevancy in a world populated by ad breaks, on-demand, and Netflix. The issue is rearing its ugly head again with the upcoming election (which you may or may not have heard about from every outlet available).
The fee covers “any television receiving equipment such as a TV set, digital box, DVD or video recorder, PC, laptop or mobile phone [used] to watch or record television programmes as they’re being shown on TV.” It isn’t needed for those who simply own a television (only used for DVDs and the like), or those who solely use catch-up services. One big issue comes as the fee, as of 1991, is enforced and collected by the BBC, while other broadcasters receive payment through advertisements and product placements.
From the late 1980s, the fee has risen annually, but in 2010, it was fixed for six years at £145.50 for colour TV, and £49 for monochrome. Concessions are applicable for the legally blind and those in nursing homes. What do we get for our money? Well… BBC One; BBC Two; BBC Three; BBC Four; BBC News; BBC Sport; CBBC; Cbeebies; BBC Parliament; Red Button content; BBC Alba; BBC Radio 1 to 6, plus Radio 1 and 4 Extra, 5 Live, and 5 Live Sports Extra; BBC Asian Network; radio stations in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland; local radio; BBC World Service; online content; and arguably BBC iPlayer.
Born into a society whereby TV is paradoxically very important and entirely trivial, being asked to fork out £145.50 a year is going to cause a bit of cognitive dissonance…
Those complaining that they never watch anything on the BBC or listen to the radio are really limiting their entertainment. Across 2013 and 2014, the BBC rationed each license fee into what they pay for, so per month, each household contributes £8 to television, £2.30 to radio, 61p to online content, 49p towards actual enforcement of the fee, and 73p towards other services and production costs. Let’s take that larger amount: would you pay £8 each month for the BBC content you consume? Alongside Doctor Who, this may include year-round productions like BBC Breakfast, EastEnders, and Pointless; one-off shows like Marvellous, We’ll Take Manhattan, and United; children’s TV including The Sarah Jane Adventures, Tree Fu Tom, and Wizards Vs. Aliens; comedies like Not Going Out, W1A, and Miranda; and ever-popular programmes including Strictly Come Dancing, Top Gear, Sherlock, The Great British Bake-Off, and The Apprentice. This is without mentioning sporting coverage and charity event screenings. There’s something for everyone, and chances are, you’ve likely spent more than £8 on a DVD of one of these series at least.
Over the years, we’ve had a lot of entertainment from the fee, but even looking over the last few months, we’ve had quality shows that should be enough to warrant the license: The Musketeers, Death in Paradise, The Casual Vacancy, Wolf Hall, Last Tango in Halifax, for instance.
Nonetheless, you’ll always get those who will proclaim with odd pride how they don’t watch anything on the BBC, and actually, they don’t even watch that much TV.
Perhaps this is part of the problem. Since its mass production, the television has been undervalued, underrated, and yet entirely captivating. We’ve since forgotten the wonder of having little people contained in a box in our lounges, how someone can have their images and voices trapped and broadcasted across the nation. Most of us don’t know the science behind it; even fewer care. But that’s fine. We’re just accustomed to it. That’s how life works. Complacency goes hand-in-hand with underappreciation, however, and so we’ve grown up with connotations of a couch potato, or Homer Simpson-esque nations, staring blindly at the Idiot’s Lantern. TV, somehow, doesn’t matter. It’s a triviality used to see us through our days.
This, of course, is over-simplification, but it’s true that the majority of people don’t realise the amount of work that goes into even the dumbest of shows. I hate The X Factor, but I still hold an appreciation for the plethora of people involved, from those on screen, to those behind-the-scenes, from the runners furiously holding things together, to the PR teams tasked with drumming the brand into our heads.
And people also see the content as, to some degree, unimportant. What does it matter what happens to a fictional family when I’ve got bills to pay? But we do get involved with people we’ve never met, people who aren’t real. This is one of the core differences between humanity and other animals: storytelling. It is how we understand the world, or at least attempt to understand and relate to what’s happening around us.
Television really does matter; after all, you’re currently reading an entire site dedicated to a long-running show.
But born into a society whereby TV is paradoxically very important and entirely trivial, being asked to fork out £145.50 a year is going to cause a bit of cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t help that even the Establishment tells us there is something inherently wrong with paying for television. Politics, after all, is finding ways to gain from public divisions, and the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition is in power only due to our dissatisfaction with life.
The license fee isn’t safe. The major parties all have questionable plans. The most damaging looks to be UKIP’s plans, with Nigel Farage claiming the BBC should be “cut back to the bone.” It would see a reduction in the license fee to just £48.50. This may sound a good thing to disgruntled homeowners, but it would certainly be a dark day for television. Farage’s reasoning is that the BBC should focus purely on international news coverage, not on entertainment, drama, or sports – which is obviously a huge threat to not just Doctor Who but also popular shows like Strictly Come Dancing, whatever remains of Top Gear, and Sherlock.
And that’s not even mentioning the non-headline-grabbing TV programmes.
Interestingly enough, this sounds a lot like the recommendations of John Whittingdale, chairman of the House of Commons Culture, Media, and Sport Committee. Arguing that the fee is “becoming harder and harder to justify and sustain,” he went on to advise that the BBC shouldn’t cover areas already featured by commercial stations, that it shouldn’t aim to cater for everyone. In a previous article, Kasterborous noted:
“In fact, this whole thing stinks somewhat, seen as it’s the Government advising what a broadcaster should disseminate. In that same set of recommendations, the Committee has highlighted the importance of the BBC World Service, as the UK shouldn’t lose ground to China and Russia in the “global information war.” That is the stench of irony.”
The Tories hint at a further license fee fix, while ‘top-slicing’ it and using the BBC as a crutch to support superfast broadband, local TV, the World Service, and even C4, according to Broadcast. Concerns have been raised about the Conservatives getting rid of the BBC Trust.
Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, already gets its fair share of programming, but the SNP want more business through BBC Scotland.
The Greens would scrap the license fee entirely, replacing it with a tax linked with inflation to ensure it’s “free of government interference,” and the Lib Dems plan something similar: they would keep the fee, but make sure it “does not rise faster than inflation.” They also make a pledge to keep the corporation’s independence by removing ministers from positions at the BBC Trust and Ofcom.
Labour perhaps has the most positive plans for the Beeb. They admit that “the BBC makes a vital contribution to the richness of our cultural life,” calling it “one of Britain’s greatest strengths,” but will decriminalise non-payment of the fee. Before full implementation, however, civil penalties would begin with a smaller pilot area. They would keep the license fee, but a further answer to what else they would actually do remains elusive, something that can be said about many topics when it comes to Red Ed and co. Ed Milliband told The Guardian:
“I think it’s incredibly important that we protect the BBC. It’s recognised around the world and is a benchmark for standards in Britain.”
And this is another reason we need to keep the license fee. Whether you as an individual like it or not, it’s an enviable position. This is a corporation supposedly free from Government influence, free from agenda (though admittedly, has left-wing leanings at times), and free of advertisements. Thanks to their pledge to make programming for a wide audience, we get niche shows that may otherwise not find enough advertising support to warrant their broadcast.
Make no mistake: we are lucky to have the BBC.
Yes, we get repeats, but really our only complaint is with repeats of shows we don’t like. If every repeat was Doctor Who, this readership may find fewer issues, but the crowd supporting Dad’s Army et al. would justly have something to moan about. Repeats are a necessity, and some of us are pleased with the ones we do get nonetheless. Nostalgia and entertainment drive many a trade.
At this crucial time, when politics can tether our creative industries so dramatically, we need to look for the good – especially with the Government using the BBC and its licence fee as a scapegoat. Of course it’s important we consistently question where our money is going. However, if we’re displeased with the fee, it is only because our political leaders are forcing us to be. Society isn’t happy, and that negativity has to be funnelled. If it can be aimed partly at a corporation the Government doesn’t wholly approve of, one which does admittedly eat up money to serve us with 24/7 coverage, then it’s all the better.
Let’s keep the BBC free from Government interference. Let’s nevertheless question the BBC. But let’s appreciate it too. There’s a lot to appreciate.