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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded...

Over the last few weeks the BBC have been running what at first seems a trailer for Panorama. In the trailer a camera pans over dimly lit streets of circuitry, diodes flicker like broken lamps, and sink estates wallow in the shadows of tall capacitors. "Your town; your street; your home..." the narrator threatens, "its all in our database."

The viewer raises an eyebrow, expecting some shocking revelation about Orwellian government schemes to combat terrorism, or ineptitude over social service data - in short, expecting the pitch for a documentary about sinister forces working to subvert our liberties - but then the punchline comes: "new technology means that its easy to pay your TV license, and impossible to hide it you don't. Its all in the database."

WHAT? Did I just catch that right? This isn't a documentary trailer warning us about sinister government forces, these ARE sinister government forces. The UK government, in the form of the TV licensing people, have just threatened me, told me that 'they are watching', and implied terrible consequences if I don't pay my license. Perhaps a swift trip on American Air with internment at the end of it?

Online an international audience has expressed horror and disgust, not only at the veiled threats, but also at the whole notion of paying a TV license.

Now I'm a middle-class lefty liberal, so its a foregone conclusion that I'd love the BBC, but it also means that I have a natural dislike for the government fiddling around with my rights, and it seems to me that we have reached an awkward impasse with the TV license fee in the UK.

On the one hand I completely support publicly funded broadcasting, especially when the system produces such fine quality stuff, for so many different interest groups, and on such a varied medium. There is no doubt that the BBC delivers.

On the other hand the shear breadth of that delivery makes a bit of a mockery of the TV license. You need a license (one per household) if you own equipment capable of receiving a TV signal. Even twenty years ago this made a lot of sense, but now you can listen to BBC radio, BBC DAB stations, read BBC content online, and even download programmes - all without owning equipment capable of receiving a TV signal. You can also spend all your time watching commercial channels, delivered through a cable, or by commercial satellites, without ever seeing any BBC content, but still be liable for the fee. Or you can watch that content (with adverts) on one of the many channels that buy programmes from the BBC (examples include UK Gold, Dave, and even BBC America which is independently funded).

And then there's the elephant in the room - the fact that TV advertising is slowly failing, because of digital piracy, digital recorders (press "skip" to jump the advert break) and the shear proliferation of alternative media streams. In this rapidly changing area, a license fee looks like the one iron-clad method of TV funding that can weather the storm, its basically paying for content up-front, which removes all those worries about making money with it afterwards!

All of which makes me think that fiddling with the license fee may be a good way of cutting off our own nose to spite our face.

Less of the threatening 1984 adverts though please Auntie - somebody at ITV might spot the elephant and panic :-/

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