Outgoing BBC Drama Chief: "We Need to Increase the License Fee"

Ben Stephenson

Ben Stephenson, who's leaving to head up Bad Robot's TV wing, passionately defended the BBC which he believes has face real-term cuts following a freeze on $228 license fee.

The BBC executive who helped bring the likes of Sherlock, Doctor Who and the recent smash hit Poldark to the small screen has called for the license fee that funds the Corporation to be increased to safeguard jobs and save popular shows from the ax.

In a farewell interview with the Radio Times, Ben Stephenson, the BBC's drama chief for the last eight years who's leaving to head up J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot's TV division, said that keeping the current $228 (£145.50) license fee at its 2010 level was an effective cut to the BBC's budget when inflation was taken into account, and keeping the fee frozen till March 31 2017 would lead to more significant cuts. 

The BBC is funded by an annual $228 license fee paid by all TV viewers in the U.K. The license fee has come under attack from commercial rivals as well as politicians as an unfair state-backed tax and a hindrance on competition. 

Stephenson, however, sees the real-term cuts as wrong-headed and counterproductive: “It really can’t keep cutting… and the truth is the market isn’t going to fill the gap of the BBC. There will be less drama and fewer jobs. It doesn’t make sense on an economic level. We do need to increase the license fee… but I am leaving the country so people have to decide what they want to do."

He added: “We are funded less than we were in 2000. That’s not a moan, it’s a fact. So you look at your slate in a different way – it’s a reason why you don’t have lots of ten- or 20-part runs. You make the money go further by having lots of different dramas. But we are at a tipping point.”

Stephenson's views take on added significance as U.K. media reports suggest that the newly reelected Conservative government will look to reign in the BBC's budget when the Corporation's charter comes up for review in 2016. 

Elsewhere in the interview, Stephenson revealed that his limited and dwindling drama budget at the BBC has meant he has had to make tough choices, admitting that the decision to cancel the popular period drama Ripper Street was due to budget constraints. Ripper Street was subsequently picked up by Amazon Prime. 

Despite the squeeze, Stephenson said there was never any temptation to funnel his budget on expanding the episode runs of the bona fide hits such as Sherlock, outlining how creative concerns always came before commercial ones at the BBC. “If we did 13 episodes of Sherlock a year, it would swallow most of our budget and it would be worse at 13 episodes."

He added: "And Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t do it. We wouldn’t do it. It isn’t what Britain is. We will do Sherlock as long as the talent want to do it. It’s such a compliment that Benedict and Martin Freeman want to do it. They don’t need to do it. They love the roles.”