U.K. Government Unveils 11-Year Plan for "More Distinctive" BBC in "Major Overhaul"

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
BBC headquarters

A long-awaited "white paper" spells the end of the BBC Trust, but will continue the license fee for now.

The British government on Thursday published a long-awaited "white paper" that details its plans for a new charter for public broadcaster BBC.

The Conservative Party administration's paper is sure to lead to more debate, but the BBC reacted positively in a first response. The government called its plan a "major overhaul," but some industry people's worst fears on possible funding cuts didn't come true.

As expected, the plan includes measures designed to lessen the impact of the BBC on such commercial rivals as ITV and Sky. But it calls for a continuation of BBC funding via a license fee of £145.50 ($210) that taxpayers pay every year and that will increase with inflation starting in 2017 after having been frozen in recent years. The government reiterated though that longer-term, the fee will be reviewed and could be discontinued.

Closing a license fee loophole, viewers will have to start paying to access the BBC iPlayer VOD service.

As previously flagged, the government will scrap the BBC Trust governing body and make media agency Ofcom the external regulator of the BBC.

Culture Minister John Whittingdale unveiled the paper on the future of the broadcaster in the British parliament on Thursday, including a charter that details its duties for a period of 11 years. The current charter, which runs through the end of this year, ran for 10 years. The added year of the new charter is designed to keep charter renewal debate out of an election year.

The charter review wants to enhance the BBC's independence and support creative endeavors, but minimize any impact on its commercial rivals, Whittingdale said. He explained that the government does not want to tell the BBC to not be popular, but ask if new shows are distinctive.

He also said that a new charter will require more transparency on talent pay. BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead will get to remain in her post through the end of her term in 2018.

Whittingdale also said the BBC will be expected to share its content more widely and open up its archives, but didn't detail many specifics.

"These reforms will embolden the BBC to take risks, to create confidently and unashamedly the highest quality, distinctive content for all audiences.," he said. "It will provide the foundations for a stronger, more independent, more distinctive BBC that will inform, educate and entertain for many years to come."

Said Fairhead in a first reaction: "Constructive engagement between the government, the BBC and the public has delivered a white paper that sets good principles, strengthens the BBC’s governance and regulation and cements a financial settlement that will sustain the strong BBC that is loved and admired by the public."

Said BBC director general Tony Hall: "This white paper delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries — and most importantly of all, for Britain.

“There has been a big debate about the future of the BBC. Searching questions have been asked about its role and its place in the U.K. That’s right and healthy, and I welcome that debate," Hall added.

The BBC struck a funding deal with the government last July, which guaranteed its funding via a license fee that taxpayers pay until 2022, which will be the broadcaster’s centenary year.

A government "green paper," also published last July, said the BBC's future, size and activities would have to be closely reviewed. While the government stopped short of making specific proposals, it signaled that singing competition The Voice should maybe be among the types of popular shows that the BBC should not buy in the future.