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What does Oliver Dowden's panel of broadcasting, journalism and technology leaders mean for the licence fee?



By Andrew Allison, Head of Campaigns 

Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, has announced that a 10-strong panel of experts will look at the future of public service broadcasting. In an op-ed for the Telegraph, Mr. Dowden said that "the BBC is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. The world has changed, and every broadcaster needs to change with it. So I’m taking a close look at the future of our entire public service broadcasting system. That includes ITV and Channels 4 and 5 – and S4C in Wales and STV in Scotland, both of which are important to those nations." He also said that the "10-strong panel won’t just be tiptoeing around the edges. They have been tasked with asking really profound questions about the role these broadcasters have to play in the digital age – and indeed whether we need them at all. It is a crucial task, given how central public service broadcasters are to our entire creative ecosystem."

This review is long overdue. Most of the output from the BBC is not public service broadcasting. It's output is very similar to other broadcasters. The Beeb chases for ratings in the same way ITV and Sky do. The rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming services means fewer hours of live television are being consumed as each year passes. Who knows what the broadcasting landscape will look like in 2027 when the BBC's Royal Charter is up for renewal. 

But despite welcoming this review, I do not for one moment think that the panel will recommend scrapping the TV licence. The Government has launched negotiations to work out how much  the licence fee should be from 2022 to 2027. No doubt ministers will tell the BBC to cut costs and the BBC will reply that it can't. The Beeb will threaten to scrap popular programmes to garner public sympathy, but it will never cut its bloated bureaucracy. It will cut around the edges; a compromise will be reached and the licence fee will continue to rise. But the number of licences issued will continue to fall as people decide paying a licence fee to watch live television is not worth it.

You can catch-up with the news by listening to the radio, and some radio stations live stream programming on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. If you want to watch live sport (during non-Covid times), you can join your friends at the pub. Netflix produces popular, high quality, original content, as does Prime.

We have been saying for years that the BBC is holding on to an analogue funding system in a digital world, and ultimately that is unsustainable. But that doesn't mean that the TV licence is going to be scrapped anytime soon. There isn't the political will to do that. And when you read Oliver Dowden's op-ed, that is pretty obvious. 


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