Over the past couple of days I have been following a small but protracted twitter debate (read 'tagged in endless back-and-forth non-sequiturs') about the BBC licence fee, the obligations of the corporation and the content our public broadcaster provides.
Dino Sofos, the producer of the rather good and award-winning Brexitcast podcast for the BBC, took issue with the accusation by commercial podcast producers that a new podcast commissioner for the BBC might well undermine the private market, where the BBC's new entrants are already starting to dominate. Matt Chorley, of The Times Red Box fame, said it wasn't so much a complaint about the BBC being innovative, entertaining and information so much as a concern that 'anyone thinking of launching a podcast without a high profile will think twice when they look at BBC domination of charts.'
This caused the following retort from Ione Wells (of the BBC):
Where to start...
- The assumption that licence fee payers are happy at the moment? I imagine those people caught in the some 10% of criminal cases in England and Wales caused by licence fee issues might disagree...
- The presumption that the BBC wouldn't be able to keep up with private companies if it were itself a private company?
- That fee payers would stop paying and then be sad that the service they're not paying for isn't performing as well as another service they're not paying for?
- The idea that the BBC is in the shadow of any private media company in the UK?
The thing with paying for a service is that you show how much you value it. If my value from the service drops below the amount I'm willing to pay for it, then I stop buying it. If it's set lower than my value then I get to keep the amount I would have spent on it, can spend that on something else and have the feeling that I've got a bargain.
As Hussein Kesvani, the UK/Europe editor of MEL Magazine and a producer of private podcasts, shared on twitter:
Hussein went on to say that this form of media is regularly made by people that come from BME backgrounds and those who struggle to break into mainstream media producers. They often have to be made on a 'shoestring, competing with broadcasters who can make shows cheaply and without commercial metrics.' If the BBC uses its market power to produce these too, they end up shutting off another avenue to producers of content and channels of talent. And it is one hell of a market share that the BBC uses its privileged position to command. The two main sites of bbc.co.uk and bbc.com secured some 18.9bn page views in 2015 - more than three times the next competitor.
There are things that must be done and can only be done by government and that only tax has the ability to pay for. Podcasts (and frankly radio, online magazine, and broadcast media) are not one of them.
I get that journalists at the BBC want to produce cutting edge material. Of course they do. The people working there are ambitious and talented; and with resources to match. But they also need to understand the crowding out effect that the provision of public money, backed by criminal convictions for non-payment, has on the private market and viability of new innovators.
So what's the alternative? Well it's simple, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Just implement a subscription model.
When you pay you get access to the services, if you don't pay then you can't. For radio, you can use advertising.
Thanks to the rise of providers like Netflix, Sky's Now TV, Amazone Prime, Apply TV, Apple Music and Spotify (to name but a few), we already know that subscriptions for high-quality services will be popular and affordable. They're popular across multiple formats too. People that like TV services can buy them for streaming or for playback, and those that like radio, music or podcast features can buy those. They can buy single programmes and continuous rolling payments for broader access. They can buy from one or many providers at their leisure.
Yes, I can imagine that if the BBC were to move to a subscription model that some stations, programmes or media will have to stop. And some really popular ones might get even more resources to meet market demand. That's a good thing. It's means that resources are being prioritised correctly.
The BBC could even start providing to customers based outside of the UK (they already do, but only to Irish viewers, for free if it's watched live...). We even have estimates for how popular a service might be despite our current prohibitive approach. While at present, so as not to undermine the case for the licence fee at home, the BBC doesn't allow those living elsewhere to access the iPlayer service, over 65m viewers across the world access it via VPN or proxy servers. Make it available to subside to, and it's likely legal users will soar. The BBC is missing out on millions of potential paying customers by geo-restricting access, and we're all paying for it.
If the BBC wants to dominate more markets, it can open up to the world, and it can start by fighting fair at home too.