How the BBC can survive the end of the TV licence

The TV licence that funds the BBC is looking way past its sell-by date, says Matthew Lynn. Here's how it could survive without it

The BBC needs to exploit its big draws

Almost a century after the BBC licence fee was first introduced in the 1920s, it is looking way past its sell-by date. The end seems nigh. But that needn’t be a disaster for the BBC. If its leadership were really bold, it would give up its fight to defend the status quo and come up with a five-year plan for switching to a subscription model instead. If Disney-Plus can get to 29 million subscribers in the US in just a few weeks, and Netflix can attract 9.5 million in the UK alone, so could the BBC. Here are five steps it should take to start with. 

1. Drop the news

Ending the news service would be controversial. It would lead to a huge number of redundancies and leave a hole in the coverage of the UK. But some tough decisions will have to be taken. News reporting is very, very expensive, it doesn’t make much money, and it often gets you into political trouble. News costs the Beeb £350m a year, about 8% of its total spending. If it were scrapped, there would still be 24-hour news coverage from Sky, which does an excellent job, as well as news programmes on ITV and Channel Four. And without the BBC, there may well be space for another operator to come into the market. It would reduce costs dramatically at a single stroke and make it far easier to balance the books. 

Get your FREE guide to market crashes

What do past crashes teach us about this one? Subscribe to MoneyWeek now and get a free copy of the Little Book of Big Crashes, plus your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

2. Monetise the library

The BBC has thousands of programmes in its archive. Right now, you can get them for nothing on iPlayer, or find them on Netflix, or else on its new joint-venture with ITV, Britbox. But it doesn’t make sense for the BBC to be letting other platforms share its most valuable content. It should bring the archive in-house and only make it available on its own paid-for streaming service. At the same time, it should start to promote and reboot comedies, dramas and documentaries from the past. If Netflix can revive Friends for a new generation surely the BBC can do the same for many of its old shows and bring in subscriptions. 

3. Focus on the mega-hits

Netflix built its huge subscriber base with a small number of mega-hits, starting with House of Cards and followed up with The Crown and Stranger Things. From Doctor Who to Strictly Come Dancing to the nature series of David Attenborough (pictured), the BBC has some huge audience winners in its line-up. It needs to prioritise such shows and stop worrying so much about the rest of the schedule. It is the handful of must-see mega-hits that will hook people in. 

Advertisement - Article continues below

4. Draw in the kids

Just about every pushy parent in the world wants their children to speak English. And they would probably prefer they spoke proper BBC-style English rather than learning it from The Simpsons. Family-orientated, educational programming could be a huge strength for BBC streaming, especially across the rest of the world. Netflix is not very strong in that space yet, and neither is Amazon Prime, although both of them are starting to spend money on building their own content. Disney-Plus will be very competitive in children’s programming, of course, but it won’t have the same upmarket appeal as the BBC. This could be an open goal. 

5. Go global

The BBC will struggle to get more than around ten million subscribers in the UK. At £10 a month that would translate into £1.2bn a year, or only a third of its current revenues. To get to anything like the amount of cash the licence fee generates, and even allowing for savings from dropping news, the BBC will have to attract another ten to 20 million subscribers from the rest of the world. Impossible? Not really. It is a big world out there. But to reach them, the BBC will have to take a lesson from Netflix and Prime. It will need to concentrate on flagship, glossy dramas and documentaries with worldwide appeal. EastEnders is not likely to pull in many subscriptions in Japan or Malaysia. But a wildlife documentary or a high-quality classic drama series with plenty of buzz around it might well do.




Beyond the Brexit talk, the British economy isn’t doing too badly

The political Brexit pantomime aside, Britain is in pretty good shape. With near-record employment, strong wage growth and modest inflation, there is …
17 Oct 2019
UK Economy

Coronavirus: Big Brother widens his embrace

The coronavirus crisis has led to a massive expansion of the state into all areas of daily life. Should we be worried?
4 Apr 2020

Three things matter for the UK housing market now – and “location” isn’t one of them

The UK housing market is frozen. And when it does eventually thaw out, the traditional factors that drive prices will no longer apply. The day of reck…
1 Apr 2020
UK Economy

How the coronavirus pandemic is killing cash

Covid-19 is making a huge difference to the way we live, work and do business. One of its less obvious effects, says Merryn Somerset Webb, is to accel…
31 Mar 2020

Most Popular


House prices and Covid-19

The housing market is in deep freeze – what happens when it thaws out?
5 Apr 2020

Markets rebounded sharply yesterday – have we seen the bottom already?

Markets shot up yesterday on hopes that coronavirus infection rates are slowing. Could we be seeing the bottom? And if so, asks John Stepek, what happ…
7 Apr 2020
Global Economy

Who’s going to pay for the war on coronavirus?

Central banks and governments are throwing money at coronavirus to stem the pandemic and prop up their economies. But who's actually footing the bill?…
6 Apr 2020

Trading: you can be sure of Shell

Oil won’t stay low forever – and Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell looks both lean and cheap.
5 Apr 2020