Only licence fee payers should be able to access BBC iPlayer, according to Channel 4 boss Lord Burns.
Burns argued that making iPlayer a subscription service along the same lines as Netflix, Now TV and Prime Instant Video would stop those who don’t directly contribute to the BBC from watching live streams.
As well as this, Burns said that the BBC needed to directly engage with younger audiences otherwise the licence fee would end up looking like a tax.
Speaking to the Guardian at the Future of the Licence Fee event at City University London, Burns said:
“This is the first big opportunity to move towards conditional access – no pay, no play – but they won’t even think about it because they think it is the first step towards subscription. They will not even think about it because they are so wedded to the licence fee.
“All the young people who are watching on their computers [without a licence fee] and don’t realise they are breaking the law, these are the first people who are showing us what is going to happen. The BBC have said they want the iPlayer to be at the centre of the future. Down the road, later in life, everything will be internet based.”
Licence fee non-payment is currently a crime. While ministers are considering changing the law so that non-payment becomes a civil offence rather than a criminal, there are also proposals to up the current £1,000 fine for fee dodging to £4,000.
You can opt out of paying and legally watch catch-up content on iPlayer, but there’s no real way for the BBC to stop non-payers from accessing live content online.
BBC director general Tony Hall hit back at the proposals, saying that the licence fee continues to be a good deal for everyone.
Hall said: “Whatever reform people come up with, they need to answer that question; is there a better way [of funding it] than that 40p a day? I don’t think there is.”
A year’s licence fee currently costs £145.50 although by opting to pay it monthly (in £24 installments) it actually works out a bit cheaper (£1.50).
In the same way that there are separate licences for colour and black and white TVs, an online-only licence fee could be cheaper. The BBC has resisted such a move, arguing that it would create first and second class viewers.
James Purnell, the BBC’s director of strategy and digital said the BBC would investigate modernising the licence fee but said: “Online delivery is the future of television, if we were to start charging a subscription that would be locking ourselves into a ghetto of the past.”