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Save the BBC - by setting it free

A Modest Proposal

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Beeb Week Although the BBC has now secured its Charter and Licence for another ten years, the debate about its future rages on.

Forcing people's hands into their pockets on an annual basis is going to become more difficult politically in an age where viewers will be able get whatever they want, on any device, wherever they are, at any time. The latest settlement could well be the corporation's last.

It could well be that a licence fee funded BBC may offer something genuinely different and radical in the emerging multi-channel, multi-device, multi-platform age. But the market failure will surely become harder to identify; the public service rationale harder to value.

This emerging environment is likely to be so competitive that although some of the content offered will be low-grade and banal, much of it will also need to be excellent for producers to survive.

The best television is yet to come. We are entering an age where competition will really start to drive production. Expect the Americans to win on big budget production and everyone else to win on innovation and humour.

These developments raise important questions about the BBC - and perhaps more importantly, how we ensure that we in the UK realise the return from years of public investment. It is too easy to forget that by paying for the BBC we also own it.

Given the market changes, it is likely that the BBC is currently somewhere near the peak of its value curve. Rational economists would argue that if the UK was to realise the greatest economic return from the mandatory investment in the BBC over seven decades, that we would wise to do it before its value starts to fall.

Could there be more attractive options that we don't hear about?

Global player

At present there is a healthy level of support for the BBC - and seemingly, for paying the licence fee. The corporation is seen to provide a pretty good deal given the range of other options on the market. Indeed, a lot of the BBC's content is damn good - something it suggests it couldn't achieve in the market. Given that point, it's odd that most of its best content sells well globally and also tends to dominate DVD sales charts in the UK.

But as the modes and methods of consuming audio-visual content start to radically change it is difficult to see this level of public support being sustained beyond 2016 - the time frame in which the new settlement runs.

Partly out of self-interest, and partly out of a failure to identify how the BBC could both capitalise on its assets and continue to deliver unique programming, the BBC works to keep the option of a sell-off out of the public debate.

This also tends to suit some of its major 'competitors' also given the seismic impact such a move would have on the wider market. In a business where the future is challenging enough already a new well resourced competitor could cause further pain - so better not to risk it.

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Next page: Real competition

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