Time to privatise the BBC

The new chairman of the BBC should be a radical who will ditch the news and focus on international markets, says Matthew Lynn.

Jodie Whittaker as Dr Who © BBC / Ben Blackall
Megabrands such as Doctor Who could earn more
(Image credit: © BBC / Ben Blackall)

Maybe it will be Charles Moore, once the editor of The Daily Telegraph. Perhaps it will be Nicky Morgan, the former culture secretary. Or possibly it will be someone else entirely. We don’t yet know who will be the next chairman of the BBC. But in fact the name doesn’t matter so much as the mission. And that should be to save one of the UK’s great institutions – by converting it into a private subscription service.

Okay, that might sound difficult. And admittedly when you already have 26 million licence fee payers handing over £157.50 a year for your service, it is hard to give that up. But in truth it shouldn’t be impossible. The BBC could be a great private business if it wanted to be.

Change is coming

In any case, the current 100-year-old licence fee model is clearly no longer sustainable. It made sense when there was a single, national radio broadcaster. When independent TV, and then radio, were allowed, it made a little less sense, and then a lot less once satellite broadcasting meant there were hundreds of channels to choose from. Now with programmes streamed from the internet it looks completely obsolete. A specific tax on owning a television makes as much sense as a charge for owning a toaster or a lawn-mower.

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And yet, the BBC is also a fantastic brand. It is a British media giant that is trusted and enjoyed around the world, and it has a huge depth of talent. If Netflix can persuade ten million people in the UK to sign up, and Sky 12 million, there is no reason the BBC couldn’t match those numbers, and add millions more from around the world.

Get rid of the news

So how does it get there? Here are five places it could start. First, it should ditch the news. It is too expensive and too controversial. We live in such politically furious times that a neutral, national news broadcaster is no longer viable. Sky News and ITV already provide TV news, and the soon-to-be launched GB News will join them. Without news, the BBC would be a lot cheaper to run, and far less contentious.

Next, it must work out how to monetise its vast library. About a quarter of its almost £5bn of annual revenue comes from selling BBC content around the world. The Britbox joint-venture with ITV is a step into the streaming market but there is a lot more it could do with its back catalogue.

Third, it should concentrate on its mega-brands. One lesson from Netflix is that just a handful of global hits – The Crown, House of Cards, Stranger Things – can drive new subscriptions. From Doctor Who to Strictly Come Dancing, Blue Planet, Peaky Blinders, Killing Eve and Line of Duty the BBC has plenty of great shows. With more focus, it could turn each season into a global event, just like Netflix and Disney-Plus do. People will sign up for a subscription just to watch that one series, and then catch up on other programmes.

Think of the children

Fourth, it should invest as much as it can afford in high-quality children’s educational programmes. Just about every aspirational family in Asia wants their kids to grow up speaking perfect English. Who better to teach them than the BBC? Families are a great way to hook in subscribers: the kids like to watch TV, and their parents don’t mind paying for it if they think it is improving. Mix up entertainment and some education, and deliver it in impeccable English, and the subscribers will roll in.

Finally, make the business international. The BBC should be able to match Netflix in the UK, with ten million people paying £90 a year for its programmes, but that won’t make it viable by itself. If it can find another 10 to 20 million subscribers around the world, that would compensate for lower British revenues. The trick will be to make every show with a global audience in mind.

So the new chairman needs a five-year plan to transform the BBC. News could be wound down first. Then put a pay wall around certain programmes. Reduce the licence fee as more content moves onto a paid-for streaming platform, then abolish it. This will take courage, but it is possible – and it would secure the BBC’s future.

Matthew Lynn

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.