Today’s big announcement from the BBC could not be better timed – and to my mind, points clearly in the right direction if they are to survive in the 21st century. Are they going to be able to adapt to survive?
Last week I speculated about how the internet could kill Sky. The argument was fairly simple: technology is changing and Sky’s once monopoly on multichannel television is no longer watertight. For the BBC, they face perhaps an even greater existential dilemma.
The BBC is uniquely funded by the license fee – the £145 you pay every year if you own a TV in the UK. This made sense in decades gone by when there was only a handful of channels – if you owned a TV, you pretty much had to watch the BBC.
The world now is a very different place – not only are there many, many more channels and sources of video content to choose from, but the very definition of what a TV actually is has become rather sketchy. We can now watch TV on our computers and our tablets – does this mean we must pay the license fee to watch TV on them? I find if you ask ten people if digital devices need you to pay the license fee, then you’ll get eleven different answers. I’ve heard variously that you can watch pre-recorded iPlayer, but not live iPlayer, or that you can watch whatever you want, as long as your laptop is running from battery and not plugged into the mains electricity (because of some apparent archaic rule with the license fee mentioning electrical devices or something). It’s a clearly absurd situation as no one seems to know.
More importantly, regardless of how the BBC’s programming is consumed, it’s possible – though still tricky – to completely avoid BBC stuff. If you get your entertainment from YouTube, listen to music on Spotify instead of the radio, and your news from Twitter, then it’d be easy to wonder why you’re still paying £145 to this organisation you never interact with.
So you have to wonder – how much longer can the BBC continue using this unique method of funding?
Smartly – they seem to be adapting. The new iPlayer changes signal a transition from the iPlayer not just being secondary to the traditional linear TV channels, but a core part of the BBC. New programming, not shown on TV will be offered there, and shows may appear on iPlayer before appearing on TV. There’ll be a longer catch-up window too. I hope, in time, more long-term agreements so the iPlayer can host shows unconstrained by whatever the TV schedulers determine.
They’re also going to be curating content around themes rather than just channels – so they’ll be an “arts” channel and a “science” channel and so on – which makes more sense in a world of YouTube categories and when, if you already use the iPlayer for most of your BBC consumption anyway like I do, figuring out what was on BBC Two and what was on BBC Four was always difficult.
It’s perhaps inevitable that there will eventually become a point when TV – by which I mean, the transmission of pictures to receivers using radio waves – because irrelevant and everything is delivered over the internet. Who knows – there may be a point when the government decide that they’d be better off selling the radio waves spectrum to mobile phone companies to make 7G mobile phones, and so close down TV as we once knew it (like with the analogue to digital switchover).
So the question raises itself: could the BBC survive this? Will it be able to adapt to suit new technology? I love the BBC, almost as much as I do the NHS, so I hope so – today’s iPlayer announcements are an encouraging step forwards towards staying relevant for another century.