The robust health of British TV was clear for all to see at the Royal Television Society conference last week, when more than 300 executives partook in some collective naval-gazing.
The Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, reminded us the TV industry generated more than £12 billion in revenues last year. Commercial broadcasters now enjoy more than £5 billion in advertising and sponsorship revenues, while international sales of programmes are pushing the £1 billion mark – nearly three times the amount in 2008.
While Javid was quick to praise the vital cultural and social role played by TV and a public service broadcast sector he called "the envy of the world", he was armed with some questions about the way the BBC is funded.
"£145.50 is a lot of money for most people to find each year," Javid said. "The hard-working families who fund the BBC are still finding savings wherever they can."
He contrasted this with overstaffing at the organisation, adding: "I believe more can and must be done to make the BBC more efficient."
Javid went on to drop the (admittedly well-trailed in the press) bombshell that the Government would look at decriminalising non-payment of the licence fee. He claimed that almost 200,000 people "ended up in court accused of not buying a TV licence" each year, accounting for more than 10 per cent of magistrates’ court cases – a figure that was quickly disputed in some quarters.
The BBC’s strategy director, James Purnell, points to research that calculates that removing criminal sanctions for licence fee non-payment could result in £200 million in lost revenues each year and would necessitate savage cuts across the organisation.
It does not take a giant leap to foresee this as the start of a process that reduces the licence fee, forces the BBC to seek alternative forms of funding – and, ultimately, leads to the licence fee being axed altogether.
In a media-fragmented world, this will be music to the ears of proponents of a free-market approach.
That said, Auntie still enjoys respect and affection even among its most vocal rivals.
So, is the licence fee coming to an end?
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