A Licence to Kill for

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by Petunia Winegum on May 25, 2015

Okay, I’m not going to talk about the EU or feminists or immigration or the NHS or Tony Blair or all the other subjects that get the Raccoon regulars hot under the collar – bar one. I’m poised to stick my neck on the line and I’m prepared to face the anticipated shower of arrows. Why? Because I believe the licence fee is worth every bloody penny. Here goes…

Know how much it costs me a month? Eleven quid. Know how much all my other bills cost me a month? A combined total of around £200. If the rest were the same as the TV licence, I’d spend most days swanning about like a pools’ winner in Monte Carlo. I can watch as much or as little telly as I like and the price remains the same; I can’t say that about my phone/internet bill, for example. Even though I avoided paying a licence for the best part of a decade, when they finally caught up with me the ridiculously low monthly cost of it was hardly a severe dent to my income.

Some say the licence fee is an anachronism – and at a moment when many view their programmes on a variety of formats other than the humble TV set (not to mention certain broadcasters maximising their profits by fleecing their customers to the bone), I suppose it is. It harks back to the era of dog licences, wireless licences and the GPO and, dare I say it without donning my rose-tinted specs, what seems to be a less complicated age. The licence fee didn’t appear with the birth of the British Broadcasting Company; there had been a licence in place from the earliest days of radio, to permit licence-holders to receive experimental transmissions. Even when the BBC was formed in 1922, it was initially funded by the sale of radio sets and – hard to believe now – the sponsorship of certain programmes that were broadcast on the nascent network.

When the licence fee as we know it did eventually appear, the cost was 10/-, which for post-decimal kids is 50p. The average annual nominal earnings in the UK at the time were around £160, which today translates at just over £7,500, give or take the odd half-a-crown. To begin with, the licence fee was exclusively for radio, though the beginnings of the BBC Television Service in 1936 didn’t lead to a penny increase; the fact that one had to live in London and the South East to even receive any pictures from Alexandra Palace probably helped to keep the licence fee at a fixed price. Only when TV resumed after the war was it acknowledged with a separate licence, priced at £2 in 1946; by the time the funding for BBC radio was merged with funding for BBC TV at the end of the 1960s, the TV licence stood at £6, though two distinctive licences were now required depending on whether or not one’s set was monochrome or colour; the latter licence was a notably higher £11.

With ITV funded by advertising, as were the Independent Local Radio stations that spread across the country from 1973 onwards, there were occasional grumbles about the licence fee from those who rarely watched BBC TV, but the flip side was also prevalent from avid BBC devotees who wouldn’t sully their hands with that common commercial television. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, yet the licence fee seemed a fair deal in that it covered all bases; you had the option of choosing to watch or not choosing to watch whatever was on offer, but you paid the same as everyone else regardless. However, British television was about to enter a different era, one in which the profit maxim would come to be the decisive factor in determining what the licence fee entitled us to see.

When Rupert Murdoch purchased a failing pioneer satellite broadcaster, Satellite Television UK, in 1983, he renamed it Sky Television the following year; but the technology for receiving satellite or cable TV was still in its infancy in the mid-80s, a time when most British TV viewers were still getting to grips with the marvels of the home VCR. By the end of the 80s, however, with Mrs Thatcher’s Broadcasting Act set to deregulate British television and open the floodgates for a plethora of new TV channels, Murdoch seized the day and aimed for the new UK Satellite TV licence; the IBA decided to bar him from bidding. The licence was awarded to British Satellite Broadcasting, and Murdoch was forced into re-launching what was then one of his least-profitable enterprises as a multi-channel service in February 1989.

Despite the hype that surrounded the arrival of Sky and BSB, both struggled to break even as viewers were reluctant to shell out for satellite dishes or have cable installed in their homes; moreover, few were impressed with what they saw. Satellite and cable TV seemed to be a repository for programmes that wouldn’t have got a look in on terrestrial channels – cheap US imports, even cheaper home-grown concoctions (often fronted by has-been ghosts of television past or young guns who had failed the interview at the BBC), and an endless conveyor belt of ancient American series resurrected for the nostalgia factor. Viewers weren’t exactly queuing-up to subscribe, and the more money was splashed out on marketing campaigns for both Sky and BSB, the more they haemorrhaged it. Less than two years after their respective launches, the two companies merged to become British Sky Broadcasting – BSkyB to the layman; but Sky was the name that stuck in the minds of the public. However, the company continued to shed money at a rate that Murdoch was unaccustomed to. What saved Sky from television oblivion was the acquisition of the rights for broadcasting live football, providing the company with a solid foundation to build its future ambitions upon.

By the middle of the 1990s, BSkyB could boast 3.6 million subscribers, completely dominating the market in the UK, and the gradual phasing out of analogue broadcasting in favour of digital that took place in the second decade of the twenty-first century also weighed heavily in Murdoch’s favour. The expansion of his television interests on several continents eventually gave Sky a virtual monopoly on many of the world’s major sporting events, something Murdoch knew would persuade even his most ardent opponents to reluctantly cough-up for a subscription. And in comparison to the cost of the licence fee, paying to view and subscribing to Sky is a different prospect altogether.

Call me old-fashioned (‘You’re old-fashioned!’), but if I pay my licence fee, I sort-of feel I should be able to watch whatever channels are available in this country without having to fork out far more on top of the licence fee if I want to watch a particular series airing on a Sky channel or even, on the odd occasion, a live football match. But greed has been the creed of Sky, and the Digger has used it to woo more than once. The cricket and boxing authorities took the Sky money and ran with it, leaving terrestrial viewers suddenly deprived of live coverage of what had been popular television sports for decades, and there’s no question both suffered a dip in popularity via their abrupt removal from TV screens the whole population had access to.

Then I think of what I get out of what I do actually pay for – BBC4 and Radio 4; there’s also BBC2 when it feels like doing something interesting and BBC1 primarily for big live events, two of which – the General Election and the Eurovision Song Contest – have taken place in the past couple of weeks. You know what I really love about listening to or watching a BBC broadcast, though? No bloody ads interrupting the flow every seven or eight minutes; the recent Peter Kay ‘Car Share’ sitcom, peppered with unnervingly realistic spoof ads from a fictitious commercial radio station, reminded me of how a commercialised BBC, should the licence fee be abolished, would be the decree absolute for me where contemporary broadcasting is concerned.

The best things in life aren’t always necessarily free; sometimes they cost eleven quid a month. Be careful what you (and the new Tory ‘Culture Secretary’) wish for.

© Petunia Winegum


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