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Five reasons we still need the TV licence fee

Why do we pay the TV license fee? Do we have to? Can we opt out? Should we get rid of it entirely?  James Peckham argues that whatever your views on the license fee, it’s in all our best interests to keep paying it. 

The license fee might be on the way out. Late last year politicians took to parliament to argue it should be scrapped and replaced with a subscription, and for non-payment to be decriminalised. More recently, a Culture Select Committee report called for current governing body, the BBC Trust, to be axed.

So, should the licence fee be dumped outright? Does society, seemingly hooked on on-demand services like YouTube and Netflix need this funding model? Is it a regressive tax?

Here, we set out the case for the licence fee and why, even if non-payment is decriminalised, spending on the BBC should be ringfenced. 

Read our feature on the TV Licence, how much is it and why do I need it?1. No adverts

One of the main benefits of the BBC is being able to watch or listen to content without being bombarded with grinning out-of-work actors, repetitive jingles and brand names. 

It’s good that adverts are nowhere to be seen on the BBC, aside from the (mercifully short) stings is uses to to trail other shows and campaigns across the network. 

Thanks to advances in technology, virtually everyone can pause live TV now, meaning heading to the toilet or grabbing a cup of tea (which you can time to coincide with ad breaks on the other channels) is a thing of the past.  

2. BBC iPlayer

Initially launching on Christmas Day 2007, BBC iPlayer was one of the original online streaming services set up for TV. 

Compared to the likes of 4oD, ITV Player and Demand 5, iPlayer is miles ahead in terms of functionality, UI and support – it’s available on hundreds of phones, tablets, smart TVs, games consoles and set-top boxes. Virtually every connected TV device sold in the UK comes with BBC iPlayer baked in from day one, which is more than you can say for the others. 

Case in point, 4oD still isn’t available on the PlayStation 4 over a year after the console launched. It took months before 4oD and Demand 5 landed on Freesat’s Freetime service when iPlayer was there at launch. Likewise, it took months before ITV Player and 4oD touched down on the Now TV Box. Again, iPlayer was there from launch

Reinforcing our first point, there are no ads on BBC iPlayer. How many ads do you have to sit through on ITV Player and 4oD? Too many for our liking. 

You can stream shows you’ve missed for up to 30 days and download programmes to watch later on the majority of phones, tablets, laptops and desktops. 

On top of that there’s also the BBC iPlayer Radio App available on mobile devices, giving you access to all of the BBC’s digital radio stations on the go. 

3. Innovation

Online streaming isn’t the only area where the BBC is leading the way. Right now the BBC is leading the Digital TV Group’s UK UHD Forum, a cross-indsutry group set up to define future broadcast standards for 4K TV. 

This has seen the corporation filming live sporting events in 4K Ultra HD at varying frame rates and shooting action scenes at 600fps using bleeding edge equipment

The UK UHD Forum will take the BBC’s findings alongside input from other UK broadcasters and use that to help define the broadcasting standards for 4K TV. 

The scheme aims to provide all future TV hardware with the ability to receive 4K channels as well as deciding what those standards will be for the actual broadcast of 4K content. This means we may be seeing a BBC 4K channel hopefully at the same time as we’ll see things like Sky Sports 4K

4. Variety

The BBC brings a great deal of variety to the table in a way which no other broadcaster does. It broadcasts drama, comedy, Saturday night light entertainment, sci-fi, live music, live sports and children’s TV – and that’s just on BBC One. 

The variety of content available on the BBC, covers politics, news, travel and arts on BBC Two, live sport on the BBC Sport website plus highbrow documentaries on BBC Four and low brow animated comedy in the form of Family Guy on BBC Three. For now at least… 

Then there’s the BBC’s radio output. Radio 1-5 covers popular chart music, mum and dad pleasing AOR, arts, comedy, classical, jazz and current affairs. 

Digital-only stations add even more flavour with the eclectic Radio 6, which serves up indie rock, punk, reggae, electronica plus documentaries and other specialist genres. There’s additional sports and arts coverage on Radio 4 Extra and Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and regional broadcasting covering parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland including Welsh and Scots Gaelic language broadcasts. 

5. The BBC charter defines quality content

The BBC has to adhere to a charter to ensure it is creating educational, impartial content of a certain quality. Everything it does must ‘sustain citizenship and civil society’, ‘stimulate creativity and cultural excellence’ and ‘promote education and learning’.  

While this means that the BBC must set aside cash for things like BBC Learning, it’s not beholden to the pressures of advertising, meaning it’s free to devote more airtime than commercially-funded channels to documentary, news and culture programmes than repeats of old movies, clip shows and ratings-winning light entertainment. 

A quick glance at TV Guide UK for last weekend, for example, shows that we’ve got BBC Proms, QI, The Joy of Mozart, Tough Young Teachers, Somerset: After The Floods, a Culture Show special on Tudor court artist Hans Holbein alongside The Voice UK, Flog It! and The One Show

Channel 4 serves up Guy Martin’s Spitfire, a documentary following restoration efforts of the iconic warplane, ITV1 offers little in the way of factual programming and the majority of Channel 5’s prime time weekend slot is dedicated to Celebrity Big Brother.

Alongside this, there are repeats of Murder, She Wrote, Take Me Out, Ice Road Truckers and The Simpsons across ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5, plus films including Hot Fuzz and Knocked Up. Fun stuff for sure, but all stuff we’ve seen before. 

The quality content the BBC makes means the bar is high for the competition to tackle. Chances are that the BBC won’t always have anything on that you want to watch at any given time, but it’s duty bound to be different to the other public service broadcasters. 

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