Mar 27, 2024 3 min read

BBC boss says “bringing people together” is a priority, and future funding models must accommodate that objective

The future of BBC funding is back in the spotlight following a speech by the broadcaster’s Director General Tim Davie. He announced a review of the licence fee funding model, but said that any changes in the future must accommodate the broadcaster’s key objectives

BBC boss says “bringing people together” is a priority, and future funding models must accommodate that objective

BBC boss Tim Davie yesterday discussed how the public service broadcaster may be funded in the future. He acknowledged that the licence fee funding model needs to evolve, but cautioned against alternative approaches that would significantly reduce the reach of the Corporation. 

Presumably responding to those who see the BBC's future as an opt-in subscription service, Davie said, "We should not create another commercial walled garden or a narrow BBC that provides a niche service for the most hardcore users. The very wonder of the BBC is that quality news sits next to genres such as drama and sport thus ensuring widespread usage. This is a precious ecosystem". 

Earlier in his speech for the Royal Television Society, Davie identified "bringing people together" as one of the BBC's three core objectives, alongside "pursuing truth with no agenda" and "backing British storytelling". And, of course, the BBC wouldn't be able to bring the British people together if it became a niche service only accessed by those willing to pay a voluntary subscription. 

"All of us are increasingly consuming global content on platforms driven by algorithms that create the most commercially-potent relationship with a customer", he said. "These algorithms can create a very narrow version of personalisation, threatening social cohesion. In this world, shared moments and common cultural experiences are becoming more, not less, precious". 

US and Chinese tech companies cannot be relied on to provide social cohesion, he reckoned. Organisations like the BBC, he said, could and should be prioritising "algorithms and AI that bring us closer, not drive us apart. Personalisation, of course, but not driven by a narrow commercial return". 

What does that mean in practical terms? A BBC committed to investing in major mainstream 'event' TV shows, as well wide-ranging coverage of big cultural, political and sporting events, including music events like "Eurovision, the Proms and Glastonbury". 

BBC funding has been a big political talking point again in recent years, with a Conservative government that has forced significant cutbacks at the broadcaster via its control of the licence fee, the Corporation's primary revenue stream. 

The licence fee was frozen for a time, meaning that when inflation is taken into account the BBC was getting less money each year in real terms. When inflationary increases were reintroduced, the method adopted for calculating those inflationary increases resulted in a lower than expected price rise. 

It's no secret that some Conservative politicians would like the licence fee to be abolished entirely, often under lobbying pressure from commercial media owners. 

Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries declared in 2022 that that would happen when the current Royal Charter - which sets out how the BBC is funded - expires in 2027. Outright abolition of the licence fee is not currently on the table, though current Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer has instigated a review of BBC funding. 

It is generally believed that a future Labour government would be more sympathetic to retaining the licence fee well beyond 2027. However, with younger people consuming much less linear TV and radio output, and much more likely to engage with BBC content either via the broadcaster's iPlayer and Sounds apps, or actually on third party digital platforms, how the BBC is financed - and how the money is spent - will ultimately have to change in some way. 

None of that means that the BBC is irrelevant to younger generations, Davie insisted. "The BBC is still the UK’s number one media brand", he declared. "Nearly nine out of ten adults come to us per week and practically everyone, every month. The British public spend more time with BBC TV and iPlayer than all the big streamers combined. And we carry the UK’s voice, values and influence to a weekly audience of nearly 450 million people worldwide". 

As for the licence fee, he added, "There is no doubt that the market has changed hugely since the licence fee was introduced. And I think it is right to ask fundamental questions about its longevity in a world that is now full of choice. But we should be appropriately cautious about unpicking a multi-genre BBC that leads the market. However, we are not defensive about the future. We will need reform". 

With that in mind, he said, the BBC will undertake its own review of the licence fee, "looking at its scope, how it could be more progressive, and making sure its enforcement is fair and proportionate". Noting Frazer's review, Davie said he and his colleagues would "engage" with that too, but - seeking to take the BBC's future out of the hands of partisan politicians, to an extent at least - he insisted, "as ever, our most important relationship is with our owners, the UK public".

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