There’s been much discussion of late about the BBC’s funding with MPs, Ministers and, reportedly, the Labour party sympathetic to the idea of decriminalising non-payment of the Licence Fee.
Understandably the BBC isn’t keen on having to persuade people to pay rather than be able to threaten them with visits from their TV Licensing contractors and has been busy briefing that every 1% of non-payment would lose it £35m and so damage its ability to fund programmes. It might even have to close BBC Four.
But with LF evasion said to account for more than one in 10 of all criminal prosecutions, it’s easy to see why ministers looking to cut costs from the Justice budget are considering making LF evasion a civil issue.
Any shift from how LF payment is enforced should also take into account other ways the broadcaster can be funded – there are a number of options to partially or wholly fund the BBC which don’t require threatening its owners with court action.
The most obvious and commonly suggested is a move to fund the BBC from general taxation.
This is never a popular suggestion because it means Ministers could potentially reduce the corporation’s funding in response to some scandal – such as the £100m wasted on its failed digital archive – or in retaliation for adverse coverage.
But safeguards to protect against such events can be easily built into any funding settlement.
Another option could be to require Sky, Virgin Media and other pay-TV providers to contribute towards the BBC content they rebroadcast. On any Pay-TV platform the BBC channels remain among the most watched, why shouldn’t companies which benefit from that content pay towards it?
Why not expect them to make a payment for add-on services such as iPlayer and catch-up content or the BBC connected red button?
In a similar vein, why not levy a surcharge on the sale of TVs, set-top boxes and connected Blu-ray players and streaming boxes capable of receiving or displaying BBC content?
The fact that iPlayer, BBC Sport and BBC News apps logos are splashed all over the boxes and marketing proves the makers know this is must-have content which helps sell devices so let’s see them pay towards it.
Such a surcharge could be set at a percentage of the item’s cost, finally addressing complaints that the current LF makes no allowance for the ability to pay.
Such changes may prove too radical, but if the LF is to be retained the BBC needs to become smarter in how it retails and collects it.
Why not offer multi-year discounts, allowing households to pay for 2, 3 or 5 years upfront in return for a discount? This is how magazine subscriptions work and similar to how BT and other phone providers allow customers to pre-pay their line rental at a lower pro-rata level.
And why not use the launch of the upcoming BBC digital download store to offer Licence Fee payers one free download of a series each year as an enticement for early payment?
Alternatively the BBC could do deals with Nectar and Tesco to allow you to pay for your LF with loyalty card points.
John Lewis offers a 5-year warranty with all new TVs but perhaps it and the supermarkets would like to offer a pre-paid Licence Fee with every purchase of a new set?
Or the BBC could strike deals with pay-TV providers to pay the LF on a customer’s behalf in order to present their subscriptions as better value.
Last year Sky offered customers a deal in which it would offset the cost of their BT Sport subscription – perhaps it might want to do the same with the LF and advertise that it’s saving customers £140 a year?
Take the right package today and BT will send you a £50 Sainsbury’s gift card while Sky will give you and a friend £75 each if you get them to sign-up. Why not work with such firms to offer a LF rebate instead?
Of course, all of these suggestions break the BBC’s guarantee of a known, predictable, fixed sum of money but every other broadcaster manages to work with fluctuating incomes and there’s no reason the BBC can’t too.
Over the past decade hundreds of millions have been wasted on failed and poorly managed IT projects and vast pay-offs for senior managers while eye-watering sums have paid for the formats to shows such as The Voice (£20m for the first two years plus production and presenters’ fees).
One of the reasons BBC bosses felt able to commit this money- money which LF payers have received no return on – is because they knew another truckload of cash would come along next year to replace it.
The risk of falling and fluctuating income would force managers to think further ahead and to spend more wisely – exactly what the households which fund it have had to do.
Like many, I want the BBC to emerge from its next Licence Fee settlement strong and free from Government meddling, but I also want it to be less wasteful, less bloated, less bureaucratic, less generous to departing no-talents, far less generous to ‘talent’ the commercial sector would never touch and more responsive to public opinion and the views and wants of its owners.
Having to persuade people to pay for it would go a long way to addressing all those points.