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07 July 2015
Is public service broadcasting going the way of universalism?

Is public service broadcasting going the way of universalism?

Thanks to Labour’s last expression of universalism in 2001, one of the great things about turning 75 is you don’t have to pay your TV licence anymore.

Thing is, older people are the ones watching television traditionally, on a chair in the front room, while the young are increasingly watching catch-up TV or cats falling over on YouTube on their whizz gizmos – no licence required.

But although the Tories generally hate universal benefits, they seem happy enough with this one.


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Thing is, they don’t want to pay for it. Of the £12bn planned welfare cuts to come in the budget, this £608m nugget just had to go.

Not wishing to deprive over 75s of their free TV, UK Culture Secretary John Whittingdale yesterday confirmed the BBC would take on the cost.

That’s right, the free licence for people who watch telly will be paid for out of the licence for people who increasingly don’t. Does that sound sustainable?

It comes only days after the corporation announced 1,000 job losses and a projected £150m revenue shortfall.

This is just the latest exciting instalment in what seems like the UK Government’s ideological assault on the television licence – Whittingdale also said the government was still considering decriminalisation of not paying for it.

Tory MP Philip Davies told the house the BBC was “sucking on the teat of the licence fee payer”.

Does Davies watch TV? Doesn’t he get anything back from public service broadcasting?

The narrative is about a swollen public body which takes more than it gives.

But the BBC is the most successful public service broadcaster in the world. It spearheads the country’s commitment to diverse, quality and informative broadcasting. It has a duty to provide it, underpinned by its public funding.

Meanwhile other broadcasters are finding their public service commitments a strain as budgets are cut.

Ofcom’s review into public service broadcasting last week showed how the era of cuts, coupled with shifting viewing habits has had a knock-on effect on British culture as a whole.

New British TV drama has dropped 44 per cent since 2008, from 627 hours to 371 hours in 2014. Coverage of the arts and classical music, religion and ethics, and formal educational programmes have also significantly reduced.

When it comes to children’s programmes, spending by ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 has dropped by 74 per cent, leaving the BBC accounting for 97 per cent.

Ofcom also revealed viewing of TV news has fallen by 29 per cent among people aged 16-34, and warned broadcasters need to adapt to the increase in online viewing.

Funding quality, informative broadcasting as people continue to shift toward watching online and on demand will be hard enough without a government which is ideologically opposed to it.

Meanwhile those who watch TV the traditional way will be watching more repeats.

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