BBC IS 100: the next decade that could determine fate of broadcaster

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Public service channel can no longer rely on privileged dominance of limited broadcast spectrum

Today is the BBC’s 100th birthday. But after a century on air, its next few years are likely to determine whether the BBC survives in a recognisable form by the end of the decade.

When the BBC came into being in the aftermath of the first world war, it was to solve a commercial problem. British industrialists were trying to sell radio receivers to the general public, but no one wanted to hand over money for an expensive piece of kit if there wasn’t anything to listen to. A group of manufacturers led by Marconi came together to seek approval from the government and created the private British Broadcasting Company – later reformed as a less overtly commercial Corporation – to produce suitable content.

BBC transmissions began in November 1922, when it took over Marconi’s existing medium wave 2LO station, broadcast from a transmitter at the company’s headquarters on the Strand in central London. (The same rooftop is now a bar called Radio.) Many things have changed since then, but others have not: The first programme included a report on a speech by Andrew Bonar Law, a newly appointed Tory prime minister struggling to retain control of his fractious party who would last just a few more months in office.

Other news items included a report on a robbery, the sale of a Shakespeare folio, and the weather. (It was foggy.) According to the BBC, the broadcast was read twice – once at normal speed, once at half speed – with listeners asked to say which they preferred.

A century later, the BBC continues to reach tens of millions of people with similar radio broadcasts – including, for at least a few more years, using medium wave transmissions that would be recognisable to its founders. But it can no longer rely on its privileged dominance of limited broadcast spectrum to reach the public.

If you turn on modern car radio, it doesn’t necessarily tune to the last station you listened to, but to a home screen suggesting you stream podcasts or play music through Spotify – alongside a seemingly unlimited array of commercial stations. If you turn on a modern smart television, it doesn’t default to BBC One – it shows you a selection of apps, with the most prominent slots reserved for US streaming services that have paid for the privilege.

The values and concepts of public service broadcasting – of being able to avoid the commercial imperative to chase viewers and proclaiming impartiality in news – were aided in part by the scarcity of spectrum. Now the BBC has to be able to seduce audiences who have a near-unlimited choice of options. It is competing with both user-generated sites such as TikTok and streaming companies such as Disney+ who have bigger budgets and few of the political and regulatory obligations to serve the whole country.

Part of the challenge for the corporation is the way its audiences for its traditional television and radio stations remain relatively high, making radical reform harder. BBC One continues to reach millions of people with its live broadcasts every night, but the average viewer is in their 60s, while iPlayer is struggling for audience share against Netflix. Radio 4 reaches more than 10 million people a week, but the corporation is facing a battle to get younger listeners to choose its BBC Sounds podcasts over commercial rivals.

Big name presenters such as Emily Maitlis have been lured away by more money and freedom at commercial rivals. Bold talk of a digital-first BBC often falls when met with the reality of feeding the needs of the still-popular broadcast outlets – as seen with the decision to axe and then reinstate BBC Three.

All this transformation has to take place after a decade of real-terms cuts to licence fee income by Tory governments. While viewers and staff have suffered from reductions in programme budgets, there has been one major beneficiary: the pubs around the BBC’s New Broadcasting House headquarters, which host a constant stream of leaving parties for the latest victims of redundancy rounds.

The BBC has also been entwined with politics – from its role broadcasting during the 1926 general strike to Tony Blair’s battle with it over the “dodgy dossier” during the Iraq war. Current director general Tim Davie was installed in 2020 after the BBC feared the Conservative government would install its own candidate – and immediately set about making Tory-friendly impartiality pledges and appointments.

This may have made strategic sense when a Boris Johnson government looked imperious after securing a substantial majority in the 2019 general election. But with a Labour administration looming, they may have to shift fast. Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, has pledged to secure the future funding of the BBC – but warned its executives not to “put that at risk by dancing to the tune of the Conservative party”.

Because more than anything, the BBC’s future will be defined by its funding and governance. The radio licence – the precursor to today’s television licence – came into being in November 1923, with the money raised split between the government and the BBC. Since then the fundamental principle – that the BBC is funded by a universal levy on everyone who owns a particular piece of technology – has remained largely intact.

This universal licence fee system is now under threat – and not just from BBC critics such as former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, who announced a review of the model earlier this year. Across Europe, television licences are being abolished and replaced with new funding systems, sometimes with the acquiescence of the existing public broadcasters who welcome a shift to future-proofed forms of funding.

The BBC’s existing licence fee agreement runs out at the end of 2027 and discussions are under way about what could replace it. Staff, who have been given suitably austere commemorative lanyards to hold their staff passes, are aware that the corporation could look very different by its 110th birthday.

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