Film & TV

In Defence of the License Fee

Sherlock Homes and Dr Watson outside 221B Baker Street
Sherlock is one of the BBC's most successful programmes to date.

With subscription services and online catch-up TV more popular than ever before, Emily Jones explores whether the BBC’s license fee is still earning its keep.

From its creation in 1922 to the present day, the BBC has long been a pivotal part of British culture; something we have loved, cherished and celebrated as the heart of British television. While things have not always been smooth along the BBC’s road to success and as 2016 will bring with it the expiry of the current licence fee charter, many whispers are surfacing over whether Britain’s successful public service broadcasting company will live on. Amidst this controversy, as the BBC bring forward unpopular proposals of a universal charge irrespective of whether people own a TV and the public grimace at the current licence fee cost at £145.50, it is perhaps important to remind ourselves why we love the BBC. For those who may have forgotten, celebrating the high quality programming that originates from the licence fee costs has never seemed more important.

Sherlock Homes and Dr Watson outside 221B Baker Street, this programme is funded by the license fee.
Sherlock is one of the BBC’s most successful programmes to date.

BBC 1 is the heart of BBC Drama and is in many ways the BBC’s biggest and most successful showcase. The diversity and quality of the programming produced in recent years and its ability to entertain and cater to millions of viewers, is a testament in itself as to why the license fee is still worth paying. Whether we like the idea of parting with £145.50, many of us will be unable to disagree with the creative excellence of the drama produced for this price. From the renowned and universally loved, Doctor Who to the exquisitely modern and suspense filled Sherlock, writer Steven Moffat has wielded the pen that has seen the creation of two of our most loved and watched BBC series of all time. Series such as Happy Valley has received quality scores from audiences that have hit an all-time high, and as Call the Midwife, Luther and Death in Paradise continue to bless us with their on screen presence with record audience numbers, we have to wonder, are we ready to let the licence fee fade away? Are we ready to allow commercial entities to swarm our favourite channels with countless advertisements and increased political interest? The fee we pay provides a wide range of TV radio and online content, free of advertisement and independent from government. As revenue is not dependent on commercials, programme makers are under no pressure to create in a way that is acceptable to advertiser’s interests. This gives the BBC unprecedented creative freedom, to take risks and to experiment with themes and genres that would otherwise be restricted. From the exquisite recreations of literary classics such as Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations, to the chair gripping, thought-provoking emotional masterpiece that was The Casual Vacancy, there is no denying we are spoiled for choice. Really, what is there to complain about?

scene from call the midwife, funded by the licence fee
Call The Midwife, another BBC original is now in its fourth series.

The licence fee works out at 40p a day which is less than we would pay for a chocolate bar, so for those complaining that the fee is too expensive, I think this figure needs to be put in some perspective; the BBC director-general argues that, ‘What you get back from that is a broadcasting ecology that is the envy of the world.’ I am inclined to agree with him. So while many of us may take the BBC for granted, wishing the license fee be scrapped altogether and favouring advertising as a more sustainable source of revenue in the future, figures show that it remains the most popular means for funding the BBC. With substantial backlash from the conservatives over the universal charge and a portion of the public that are dissatisfied with the high costs, the BBC is likely to incur at least some changes. However, while we may accept that the system may need modernising, particularly since the rise of online viewing, scrapping the licence fee will pretty much change BBC’s entire ethos. Figures show that 96 percent of the UK uses BBC services for more than 18 hours a week, suggesting that it remains good value for money. After all when the BBC costs us less than a chocolate bar a day, is it worth giving up? I think not.