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.
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.
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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.
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.
Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg, and writes weekly commentary syndicated in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Miami Herald. He is also an associate editor of Spectator Business, and a regular contributor to The Spectator. Before that, he worked for the business section of the Sunday Times for ten years.
He has written books on finance and financial topics, including Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis and The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031. Matthew is also the author of the Death Force series of military thrillers and the founder of Lume Books, an independent publisher.
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