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22 January 1999

A licence to kill those damned ads

Commercial-free, not commercial-minded, is how we want Auntie

By Brenda Maddox

It was the guest room from heaven, the kind that a warm-hearted, hi-tech American home can provide the British visitor: en suite loo, electric blanket, telephone, fax, cable TV and a state-of-the-art three-band radio thoughtfully pre-tuned to the local public radio station that brings in the BBC every morning.

Just my luck. The day I tuned in hoping to catch some London news (a rare thing in the United States), the non-commercial station was conducting one of its funding drives. There was no BBC that morning – in fact, no programmes of any sort. The station’s managers, knowing how much the ritual begging round irritates their listeners, had decided to concentrate it all into a few hours’ solid whining: “Give now! We depend on your support! Write that cheque! Why let others carry the burden?”

Nag, nag. Shrill, humourless, grating. How many in Britain pause to consider what the alternative to the television licence fee is?

Probably not public begging. These terrible on-air pleas for a handout are barely sufficient for America’s undernourished public broadcasting services. They could not support the vast activities of the venerable BBC.

But what else? The BBC has good reason to panic. Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, has appointed a nine-member panel to investigate the future means of financing the BBC just as news came out that last year BBC1 dropped below a 30 per cent share of the television audience for the first time.

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If the BBC’s most popular channel cannot hold its audience in a multi-channelled world, how can the corporation justify receiving about £2 billion a year from a compulsory tax that all viewers must pay or go to prison? The BBC knows that its popularity will not be enhanced as the fee rises above £100.

It’s no secret how the Birtian Beeb will fight its corner. It will continue to pro-claim that the BBC is superlatively well- managed, and that it is exploring every avenue permitted within the terms of its charter to make money.

This entrepreneurial philosophy allows the BBC to forge dubious alliances with commercial ventures such as Flextech and the Discovery Channel. It allows the corporation, if woeful rumours be true, to plan savage cuts in the BBC World Service, as if to emulate the Foreign Office which has already inflicted £20 million budget cuts of its own. This business-like BBC is not shy of using advertising on ITV to sell the public the dubious charms of the digital television on which it is lavishing 10 per cent of its income. Yet it disdains utterly to advertise its unique selling point: it doesn’t carry commercials.

The BBC often boasts of the superior quality of its programmes, although this is not always apparent. What it should be shouting from the rooftops is that it offers news, films, sport, soap operas, music and disc jockeys uninterrupted by advertising.

What’s the difference between The Simpsons on Sky TV and BBC2? The commercial break. The BBC, not trying to sell Domino’s Pizza, can fit two episodes of these comic gems into 40 minutes. What’s the difference between the BBC’s Six O’clock News and ITV’s News at Ten? Again, the break. The wedge of advertising in the middle of the main evening news bulletin not only breaks concentration but divides the news into hard and soft.

The obvious alternative method of finance is commercials. A hot-tempered website under the name of Advocating Licence Fee Abolition, or ALFA, wants the BBC to pay its way by advertising like all the rest. ALFA, inviting support from licence-fee haters, calls the compulsory fee “unfair, undemocratic and outdated” (and compares it to the window tax). All the BBC offers, it says, is just two terrestrial channels.

This is not true. That many people believe it is another sign of failure in BBC spin-doctoring. It was a PR disaster for the corporation when the word “radio” was dropped from what now reads as “TV licence”. Many who tune into one part of the BBC’s vast radio output do not realise that a quarter of their television licence goes to pay for it.

But putting commercials on the BBC is a non-starter, too. Even the Thatcher government’s white paper, The Future of the BBC, had to accept that letting the BBC sell advertising would serve mainly to destabilise commercial television.

If the public really hated the television licence, the fee would have gone the way of the poll tax. The licence fee is an anachronism that works – started originally on the theory that if the British public was prepared to buy a licence to own a dog, it might be prepared to pay to listen to the radio. The same reasoning should prevail: £100 a year looks cheap as the cost of subscription channels mounts up.

It is certainly possible that by 2006 (the date until which it is fairly safe) the television licence fee will become politically indefensible. If that happens, the BBC should be financed from direct taxation rather than advertising. That course would be fraught with the risk of political interference that the licence fee was designed to avoid. But universities, museums and galleries maintain independence in spite of subsidy; and an increasingly middle-class nation should need little persuading that commercial-free broadcasting is as desirable as billboard-free motorways or national parks.

Sir John Birt’s successor should waste no breath insisting on how commercially minded the corporation is. Rather, he (to add “or she” is pretty pointless) should reiterate what ought to be the BBC’s proudest claim. Never has anyone on its airwaves had to utter that shameful broadcasting euphemism: “We’ll be right back . . . after this.”