What is the BBC?

I'm a BBC employee, but these thoughts are my own and are not the official position of the BBC.

The BBC is world's largest broadcaster. We provide a wide variety of programming in a variety of areas. For historical reasons, we collect a license fee from the public. If you watch TV live in the UK, you currently have to pay £139.50 per year. The UK Conservative and Unionist Party, more commonly known as the Conservatives, or Tory party, wants to force the BBC to give up part of its license fee to for-profit corporations which, unlike the BBC, can advertise to earn revenue.

Well, so what? What's so special about the BBC that we should have a right to public money? Well, we have no intrinsic right to this money in the same way that, say, the police and fire departments don't have an intrinsic right to public money. However, like any public good, society cooperates to share certain resources for public gain. The fee is mandatory if you watch TV live and that's because voluntary cooperation leads to the free rider problem with public goods. In other words, when you have a shared resource that everyone can enjoy regardless of whether or not they pay for it, then some (sometimes many) will refuse to pay for, particularly in times of economic hardship. That's why you pay taxes for police, even in a recession. The presence of police will benefit you whether you're paying taxes or not. So the real question is, do we get what we're paying for from the BBC?

Just as a quick reminder, here are a few accomplishments of the BBC:

  • We were the world's first national TV
  • We were doing radio relay from the US in 1924
  • In 1936 we launched the world's first TV service, proving it was viable
  • 1937, we developed the first efficient speech microphone
  • 1945, "Woman's Hour" was the first woman's radio programme (we already had the world's first female radio announcer over a decade before)
  • 1952, we developed a video tape recorder
  • In 1962, we were doing satellite broadcasting
  • 1967, we launched colour TV in the UK
  • 1974, we developed CEEFAX and gave subtitles to our programming.
  • 1982, we introduced the BBC Micro in an effort to bring computer literacy to schoolchildren
  • 1995 Digital audio broadcasting
  • 2007 iPlayer launched

People seem to forget that many of the communication initiatives in the UK came first from the BBC because we were able to take risks that a profit-driven organisation is less likely to take, or will take later after waiting to see if others become successful. Many internal initiatives that we're currently taking are fantastic things I want to see made public, but I can imagine that if I were to go to another media organisation, they'd be less likely to take those risks due to the cost.

Of course, most people don't think about that. They just care about watching telly or listening to the radio. And what do we do there? Let John Cleese whinge about it.

So why do the Tories want to force us to give up part of our license fee? I don't know. Gosh, why would any politician want an organisation they have limited influence over to transfer power to profit-driven organisations whose corporate owners might hand that politician or their party lots of money or positive publicity? (Why would Republicans favour Fox over PBS?).

One thing the Tories would like you to forget is that we're already required to spend 25% of our income on external suppliers and we exceed that amount. So they want to force us to give up part of our license fee on top of our legal obligation to have a 25% external spend. I didn't hear that in the Tory speech I linked to above.

Inside the UK, we get beat up a lot by various media groups who are, to be fair, further right than we are. (In fact, the Daily Mail is only a short step away from being the mouthpiece of the racist British Nationalist Party). What people inside the UK often don't seem to realise is the worldwide admiration for the BBC. Many people outside the UK rely on the BBC to provide them "unfiltered" news they can't get elsewhere. You're simply not going to find profit-driven corporations forgetting what is needed to maintain that profit. There are plenty of times you can read about major stories being toned down or eliminated due to concerns about advertisers pulling out.

Many people in the US are unaware of the history of PBS, a station which could have been the US counterpart to the BBC. So what happened to them? In short, Richard Nixon. Nixon was unhappy with the independent spirit of public broadcasting. He felt they were too liberal and able to advocate for national causes that he didn't approve of. As a result, in 1972, he refused to sign H.R. 13918, a bill which would have provided full funding for PBS. That's why many shows on PBS are "brought to you by the MAJOR CORPORATE INTEREST OF THE DAY". Specifically, he wrote:

There are many fundamental disagreements concerning the directions which public broadcasting has taken and should pursue in the future. Perhaps the most important one is the serious and widespread concern--expressed in Congress and within public broadcasting itself---that an organization, originally intended only to serve the local stations, is becoming instead the center of power and the focal point of control for the entire public broadcasting system.

In short, public broadcasting should be about local interests, regardless of whether or not national issues fall within the scope of "public interest". PBS could have been so much more, but because it's funded by taxes and major corporations and the periodic public begging for donations, it's highly constrained in its ability to be independent. Republicans are still trying to cut its funding further. Right-wing news sources like Newsmax have pages describing why public funding for PBS should be eliminated. PBS periodically refuses to show public interest content which might offend corporate interests who fund PBS.

In short, remaining independent is critical to ensure that the BBC is able to present innovative programmes and independent news and public interest stories. The Tories want this independence to end. Right-wing media in the UK would love to see us eliminated. Yes, we present content that some people will find uncomfortable or unpleasant, but is the purpose of the BBC to present bland programming which does not provoke thought or debate? Is the role of the BBC constrained to not offending anyone? That's an impossible goal. As public and political attitudes shift, the BBC would have to constantly race to adjust all programming to be a bland morass of "feel good" shows which do little to make people think and does everything to avoid challenging their beliefs. Many people argue that we already have 1984 in Britain. Do we want Brave New World, too?

For more background on how the media works, I highly recommend the book Unreliable Sources - A Guide to Detecting Bias in the Media. Rather than have pundits tell you what is and is not biased. Learn to recognise bias for yourself. The BBC is not perfect, and perhaps our public funding does mean that we don't present news which makes a white, heterosexual Christian world happy, but that's what's great about the BBC. You may not always like it, but it's going to make you think and it's going to prompt debate.

I like some of the stuff broadcast by the BBC, but it annoys the hell out of me that I have to pay over a tenner a month to the BBC in order to be able to watch non BBC channels.

There are many TV channels and radio stations now. We should be phasing out the BBC, giving them less and less public money each year until they either die or fund themselves wholely.
Dear Anonymous

Surely paying your tenner a month to watch BBC programmes when you want to is preferable to paying over £20 a month to Rupert Murdoch not to watch a squillion channels that are broadcasting BBC reruns.
At least the BBC tries to more representative - I've just been completing this consultation they put out. I gave them a good lecture on polyamory too :)

Do you have views on how the BBC portrays lesbian, gay and bisexual
The BBC is currently taking an in-depth look at how its services
reflect the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as part of both
its wider Diversity Strategy and its responsibilities under the
Charter to reflect the diversity of the nation.
Your views will inform a Working Group of programme makers,
commissioners and executives from across the BBC who will make
recommendations to the BBC's Diversity Board, chaired by Mark
Thompson, on future editorial policy and practice in this area.
The closing date for this consultation is 2 April.

To take part visit:
i think The government just make silly rule. What they intend to is to have authorities on BBC. They will censor news that they don't like to hear. BBC has big influence to the people. Of course they scare.
As someone who works in the US television industry, this was very interesting to read.

I had heard before that people in England had to pay in order to view television. Is there a method of viewing television legally for free (as it works in the US), or is the tax mandated in order to view television whatsoever?
The License Fee
The license fee only applies if you watch television as it is broadcast. If you have a TV or a computer with a TV tuner, it automatically applies since there's no way to verify whether or not you're watching it as it is broadcast.

If you want to legally watch TV for free but don't want to pay the license fee, you buy a computer and watch iPlayer (the British Hulu). Since everything on iPlayer is shown after broadcast, it's not subject to the license fee. It's also not available outside the UK, but it's been reported that there are plans to make it available internationally. However, I can't say anything more about this as I don't know what is and is not appropriate for me to say beyond public speculation.
Re: The License Fee
Fair enough. Quite honestly - and I'm likely very biased in saying this - I think the US format is better for the actual distribution of entertainment. It allows for anyone with a television to pick up a wide variety of channels, as they are broadcast live, for free. Yes, we have to put up with advertisements and sponsorships. I've been pondering recently if a return to the original old-school sponsorship system would be best - one advertiser sponsors an entire show, thus limiting how much outside influence a single show would need to deal with.

In the end, though, since broadcasting costs so much money, money will always be the primary factor in distributing entertainment. Thus why the internet has turned the whole industry upside down in recent years. :)
Re: The License Fee
For entertainment, that could be the case, but it does ensure that entertainment is limited in the risks that it can take. After all, if you try to do something too "edgy", advertisers get upset. "Edgy" in the 50s meant not showing a happy, healthy interracial marriage. You can guess what it means today. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was considered a shocking movie. There's no way such a theme would be broadcast on television.

And you still have the problem that your news is tainted. No way to get around that.
Re: The License Fee
I can't and won't argue that our news is horribly biased, although I think that might be a problem with our country and its political system more than the broadcasting structure. :(
Re: The License Fee
The broadcasting structure and the political system are closely related. Remember The Fairness Doctrine? It was all about requiring balanced points of view on controversial topics. The Republicans didn't like it, so they killed it under Reagan. It's no coincidence that there was a rise in right-wing hate media shortly after. This, in turn, drives our political responses until we come to the point where tea baggers are marching in the streets demanding tax cuts for the rich.

The two are inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately, the UK has also seen the rise of right-wing hate media and while we're still definitely left of the US, we're getting dragged further and further right. Politics and media reflect and reinforce one another in a perverted Helegellian dialectic in which opposite views don't spring forth, but reinforcing views contend for an extremist position.

While profit-driven corporations control our media, the media will reflect what profit-driven corporations want us to see.