The BBC is heading into a death spiral and we should worry about it
The bargain at the heart of the BBC is fraying
The BBC is, regrettably, doomed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the BBC, and I’m always the first in line to defend it from its many stupid critics. But I think it’s impossible to deny that the corporation, as it is currently constituted, is not long for this world.
Why am I so pessimistic? The grim reality is that big structural changes in media are undermining the BBC - and sooner rather than later, the BBC needs to make a big decision about its future: What comes next? I think the answer could be something radical.
This is part one of a two-part series on the BBC. Subscribe to make sure you receive my proposal for how to fix the BBC, coming next week. (Edit: Read it here.)
The BBC Bargain
First, some throat clearing.
When I was growing up and watching far too much TV, BBC Television Centre felt like the centre of the universe.
Perhaps this says something about how my brain works, but as a child my favourite parts of shows were when they would pull back the curtain and reveal how it was all connected. Like when Blue Peter took the camera through its studio doors into the corridor, and wandered into the Top of the Pops studio nearby, when Live & Kicking visited voice-over man Mitch in the gallery, or when Children’s BBC continuity would close out an afternoon of programming from the Blue Peter garden just because it was next door to their own studio. It really felt like this one building in W12 was where everything happened.
Similarly, in my adult life, some of the most exciting days of my career have been when I’ve had the opportunity to visit BBC buildings for professional reasons1. As a freelance tech journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to perform some brief moments of on-air punditry on a few news programmes2, and I even had a regular weekly gig for a few years talking about the latest technology news as a freelance contributor on the BBC Asian Network3. Each week, I’d turn up far too early - partially because I’m obsessively early for everything, and partially to soak up the atmosphere of being at the BBC4.
This is all to say, on a gut level, I get it. I understand why the BBC is such an important and emotionally resonant institution. I subscribe to the sentiment so movingly expressed by Alan Partridge’s poem.
But at its core, the BBC is a super weird anomaly.
Imagine if the BBC had never been invented. Imagine if you were to propose in 2021 the creation of a massive branch of the public sector which spends public money5 on dancing shows and light entertainment. You’d be laughed out of the room. Your insane idea would be dismissed faster than the guy who proposed selecting a head of state just by picking the eldest child of the previous incumbent.
When the corporation was created, the rationale made more sense. Airtime and the frequency spectrum were finite resources, so it made sense to have a public body curate the output for the public good.
Since then, the basic bargain has been the same: You don’t like paying the licence fee, but it funds lots of dull and worthy things that are good for society to have. Even if you don’t engage with Newsnight’s coverage of the Namibian Presidential Election6, or you don’t tune in to hear what the fishing conditions are like in the North Sea, it’s good that at least someone, somewhere is being paid to care about these things. And anyway, it doesn’t matter if you find all of that important stuff boring. The BBC also makes things like Strictly and Doctor Who, which you do like. So, in theory, everyone is happy.
The BBC’s legitimacy is predicated on it being a universal service. Because there’s something for everyone, no one can complain about paying for it. The BBC itself makes this argument; and it was in the first sentence of a recent submission to the DCMS committee.
But the reality in 2021 is that this universality cannot hold - and without universality, the entire rationale for the BBC as it currently exists is undermined.
The Death Spiral
We obviously live in an era dominated by international streaming platforms. Not only do we have more to watch, but the new platforms themselves are a challenge to the previously unrivalled position of the BBC as the dominant player in British culture.
This is because streaming has upended the fundamental economics of TV production to the extent that there’s no way the BBC can compete.
With the best will in the world, there’s no way in hell that Doctor Who is ever going to have that sort of money spent on it8.
The disparity is even clearer when you look at overall content budgets. According to VideoWeek, Netflix spent $11.8bn in 2020, Disney is expecting to spend $8-9bn on Disney+ content by 2024, and Amazon is estimated to be spending $7bn this year alone.
By contrast, according to the BBC’s most recent annual report, it spent about £980m ($1.3bn) on “programme-related assets and other inventories” in the 2020/21 financial year9. And that figure includes all of the dull public service stuff that you probably enjoy watching, but normal people who don’t read long Substack posts do not.
This means not only does the BBC have less money to play with, but it also has to spend it in a less commercially efficient way. Its competitors do not have these impediments.10
My fear for the BBC is that as generational turnover takes place, the BBC will remain outpaced and its cultural relevance will continue to decline. How can the BBC compete in a world where Disney can crank out an infinite stream of Mandalorians and WandaVisions11, while the BBC has to make do with less cash and an obligation to make worthy documentaries and Songs of Praise?12
Hell, how can it compete with YouTube? At the low-budget end of content production, YouTube has an entire eco-system of creators who are laser focused on niche audiences, who can use new technology to produce near-broadcast quality content for them.
In the long run this will undermine the universality at the core of the BBC bargain, which will send the corporation into a death spiral. Fewer people see value in the BBC, so fewer people will pay the licence fee13, which means smaller budgets for the BBC, which means less money to spend on content, and on the death spiral goes.
But this isn’t just about money. The BBC’s falling mindshare also makes the claims to universality shakier. And scarily, I think there are ominous signs that this is already starting to happen.
Look at what kids are - or rather, aren’t - watching. According to Ofcom’s 2019 kids viewing habits report:
“When asked if they could pick only one platform to watch, 45% of 5-15s chose YouTube – a higher proportion than those who chose on-demand, such as Netflix (32%), or TV channels such as BBC and ITV (17%).”
In other words, my generation - late 80s millennials - was probably the last one to have any sort of affection for the BBC drummed into it at an early age.
When the younger generation become adults who vote and have opinions on the financing models of public service broadcasters, they won’t be nostalgic for those lovely balloon idents, Anthea Turner making Tracy Island or PJ’s unfortunate paintball accident. Instead, they’ll be reminiscing about watching a Twitch streaming millionaire child screaming racial slurs as he rail-guns his opponents on Fortnite.14.
Because of these big structural changes, it is likely that one day we’ll wake up and realise the BBC is no longer a universal service that we all use. It’ll be possible to live your entire life without engaging with BBC content, and the already precarious political coalition that protects the licence fee will fracture15.
So as painful as the implications are, I can’t envisage a path to not abolishing the licence fee at some point in the next decade or two.
Obviously part of me wants to be wrong. In principle, I still support the licence fee and the things that it funds. I think the BBC is a good thing for all of the reasons stated above. But my opinion will increasingly be a minority one.
So, if we want to preserve the cultural good that the BBC does - and has done over the last century - we need to think about what comes next. What does a BBC of the future actually look like?
What comes next
Despite the deliberately clickbait title of this piece16, I think there is a future for the BBC - or at least, the bundle of functions that the BBC currently performs.
It is still a useful thing for society to have impartial journalists slogging through boring meetings to report on important things that commercial outlets have no interest in covering. It’s still useful to have a supply of children’s programming that isn’t rampantly commercial. It’s still useful to have a broadcaster committed to nurturing talent and serving audiences the private sector will not. It’s still useful to have an institution we can trust to convey accurate and truthful information that isn’t compromised by commercial considerations. And so on.
But I think the BBC’s future boils down to a fairly simple question: Is the corporation willing to continue on the path of least resistance and risk the death spiral, or is it time for a more radical approach to public service broadcasting?
To find out, you’ll have to tune in next week, when I’ll be outlining my proposals on what the BBC of the future should look like, how it should work, and how it should be funded. So subscribe now to get it in your inbox next Wednesday, and follow me on Twitter because my tweets are awesome.
UPDATE: Part 2 has now been published, and you can read it here.
Please consider sharing this post with your friends and followers too, as - let’s face it - if you’ve read this far, you’ve definitely got lots of nerdy friends and followers who might also enjoy it.
A big thank you to Allie Dickinson for editing/proofing this and preventing it from being riddled with errors.
I even once got to do an episode of The Boring Talks podcast, which you should definitely listen to.
My advice for aspiring pundits: You won’t get a chance to say as much as you think you’ll say, as it will go by in a blur - and don’t try to construct a complex argument, as there won’t be time. Stick to bullet points!
I was surprised to be asked, given that I’m not Asian, but nobody seemed to mind this fact.
I used to spend a lot of time on the ground floor of what is now Wogan House, the BBC Radio building next door to Broadcasting House. There’s a bunch of small radio studios where they dial in contributors to speak to different programmes remotely. Once, I saw Stephen Fry, and another time, Nadia from Bake Off. Other times, I’d have to guess who the people around me were, and I’d subtly google trying to work out who they were.
Yes, the licence fee isn’t technically a tax, and the BBC isn’t technically the public sector, but for all intents and purposes they share similar characteristics and functionally operate in much the same way.
Unsurprisingly, Hage Geingob was re-elected - but with a substantially smaller margin of victory in 2019 compared to 2015.
Thanks to, umm, the BBC website for reporting this.
In fact, the only way the BBC has been able to do competitive big budget stuff is by partnering with big US producers. His Dark Materials was made as a coproduction with HBO, and Good Omens was a coproduction with Amazon. Which is arguably like a chicken partnering with a (20th century) fox to escape the coop.
I’m sure someone who is more financially minded will be able to explain to me why this is a flawed comparison. I’m not enough of an accounting whiz to intuitively know exactly how 1:1 this comparison is, but my point is to look at the magnitude of spending, rather than the specific numbers.
The BBC’s hands are also tied by obligations to serve different audiences and the types of content it can produce. Disney and Netflix can put their money into content that will remain evergreen. It doesn’t matter whether you watch Loki as it goes out or in five years’ time - the content is additive to Disney’s library of content. By contrast, the BBC has to spend a significant chunk of its money on stuff like Watchdog, The One Show or - literally - the news, which depreciates pretty much as soon as it is transmitted.
Seriously, I don’t think we quite realise it yet but from next year the Disney+ machine will be fully up and running and there’s going to be a new episode of a Marvel show and a new episode of a Star Wars show every single week for the rest of eternity.
Obviously not everyone wants to watch big-budget superhero fare, but even on low and mid-budget content, the BBC will find itself squeezed by streamers with deeper pockets - look at how much shit Netflix flings at the wall to see what sticks. Over time, just through sheer force of numbers it means Netflix will generate more hits - like the reality shows I’m only dimly aware of - and more cultural cachet than the BBC can ever imagine competing with.
There’s a whole extra discourse about how this structural challenge in TV is just a subset of the structural changes to content more generally. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has famously suggested that his biggest competitors are Fortnite and… sleep. And this is exactly correct.
It’s like how the housing crisis is a big deal now that Millennials are in their 30s and want to own property, or social care is a big deal because the Boomers are getting old. It’s just a matter of time.
Haha, I win! You’ve nearly read all of it now.