BBC Trust Chief Defends License Fee Model

The tax-supported BBC is debating how it will fund programming such as "Sherlock" in the future.
The tax-supported BBC is debating how it will fund programming such as "Sherlock" in the future.
 Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE.

LONDON -- BBC Trust acting chair Diane Coyle said the British public broadcaster should keep its current tax-based license fee structure. At least for now. 

Coyle, who took up the reins as the acting chief of the broadcaster's governing body after Chris Patten resigned in May, has called for at least one more term for the current license fee funding model. Under the system, all British households pay an annual fee to help finance the BBC.

Coyle, said there is "every reason to think the license fee, which pays for the creation of new programs no matter how they’re viewed, is the best model and a sustainable model for at least another Charter period."

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Many - including Veep showrunner and co-creator Armando Iannucci, have suggested the BBC ditch its tax-funded structure in favor of a subscription model. Earlier this year, BBC director general Tony Hall said the license fee model could be "modernized" when the current charter term for the license fee expires at the end of 2016.

But Hall warned that replacing the tax-based model with a subscription fee would lead the BBC to focus on maximizing profits by targeting more attractive audiences, as opposed to serving all British citizens, including niche groups.

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In a speech delivered at the London School of Economics Monday evening, Coyle reiterated that, noting that "the license fee is designed to make the BBC independent of the cycle of annual Government spending decisions and hence political interference, while sustaining it as a universal public service."

Coyle, however, acknowledged that viewing habits in Britain are changing and that BBC shows are now viewed on tablets, smart phones and computers as well as on traditional television sets and that future funding structures should reflect this change.

"We will also want to put forward some ideas about how to incorporate on-demand viewing to the iPlayer into any future license fee system. But public support for the license fee has actually risen over the past 10 years and is significantly higher than support for any of the alternatives, such as subscription or advertising," she said.

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Coyle's comments will add fuel to the debate over how and why the BBC should be funded, a debate that will begin in earnest after next year's British general election. The current BBC Charter expires December 2016.

On the Charter review itself, Coyle said she is determined to make the debate as transparent and open as possible.

"We think the Charter Review itself needs to be a proper, robust, open and consultative process – very different, in other words, from the last license fee settlement," Coyle said. She also pointed out how important it was that the British public broadcaster maintaining its independence from government interference, something Coyle thinks may be creeping in.

"The BBC is a national but not a state broadcaster. This distinction has been critical to the relationship it has with license fee payers – the extent to which they trust it and feel a sense of ownership towards it," Coyle said.

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