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iPlayer repeat fees threaten BBC earthquake

What's fairer than 'pay as you go'?

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Analysis Is it fair to ask people to pay a second time for media they've already paid for? Or is it fair to charge people for media they never use - and send them to prison if they decline to pay? Of these two injustices, which is the greater?

Last week, PaidContent UK revealed a few details on plans by the BBC to charge for repeats through iPlayer. The plans, codenamed "Project Barcelona", envisage previously broadcast shows being made available on-demand for £1.89 a time.

It's not unexpected. Any move would require the consent of the owners of these programmes - and the owner in many cases is not the BBC - and the BBC's governing committee, the BBC Trust. The BBC admitted as much in its reaction, pointing out it couldn't really move forward without the support and consent of the TV industry. And, it may have added, politicians and the regulator.

It is a small decision with seismic importance, for it opens up several quite fascinating debates. The internet has broken down some old dogmatic certainties - and created some new ones of its own.

The net has exploded the myth that we'll pay for something even if we don't use it. We don't buy an album if we just want to own one or two tracks on it. We don't buy a newspaper if we just graze the sports section. The bundle has been blown apart. We've entered the pay-as-you-go era of media consumption.

(With the emphasis on the "go", of course.)

One consequence of this shift is that we don't expect gigantic media companies to have any kind of dibs on a guaranteed income. They display a sense of entitlement that we historically associate with pre-revolutionary monarchies. In the digital age, the idea of paying a compulsory fee to supply wheatgrass smoothies to hordes of media types who produce stuff you never touch is utterly, utterly bizarre.

This leaves the BBC in quite an awkward position, for what was once a unique form of funding has become a unique handicap, an anachronism. That's the "old" dogma that hasn't survived.

But internet culture has also generated some whacky dogmas of its own.

How to look like the village idiot

One is an ideology directed against cultural industries that produce professional high-quality stuff, by people who often like professional high-quality stuff but don't want to pay for it. Good stuff will just happen, the ideologues insist, as if by magic. And the magic incantation usually invoked is that somebody's "business model" will adjust to satisfy the desire to get stuff for free, or a new "business model" will magically appear to save everyone the onerous burden of actually paying for things.

These aren't widely held beliefs, in the sense that if you voiced such views in a pub or a cafe you'd be marked down as a self-centred fool with an inflated sense of entitlement, and everyone would ignore you. But on the net, where social constraints don't apply, they're noisily and repeatedly expressed. To demur is to risk being labelled a vested interest or Luddite.

And these strange beliefs can actually work to the BBC's advantage.

The BBC has a 60-year history of creating quality popular content and, more recently, commissioning other people to create it. In a world where talent is dispersed, and production values are in decline, this should make its brand and output all the more distinctive.

For much of its history, the BBC attracted the best talent, groomed it, and focussed it. Sherlock is a rare example of the BBC making TV that's popular and stunning - it concentrates some CERN-like talent on a show. Thanks to the internet, and the ever-increasing demand for English language products, shows like Sherlock are no longer a parochial English pleasure. But the corporation is struggling, thanks to a constitutional obligation to give it all away.

These two dogmas collide in discussions of how the Beeb can monetize its archive or whether it should monetize it at all, given that the public has already paid for the material. In such discussions, extraordinary things happen. People suddenly discover they are perhaps not quite as dogmatic as they thought.

I've seen devoted freetards suddenly realise that, yes, perhaps some media companies are worth paying for. Or perhaps one. The "global media giants" at which they traditionally rant becomes one they like. And from the other direction, you see lifelong, diehard BBC supporters confronted by the new economics: "£20 a month for stuff I never watch? Spotify doesn't even ask a tenner." The economics don't makes sense - or seem fair.

My bet is that pay-as-you-go iPlayer will be a hard sell for the BBC. It can argue - correctly - that the original broadcast was merely a one off, and the viewer is paying for a "licence" to watch it again. In this sense, it is no more "unfair" than BBC Worldwide issuing a Dad's Army DVD. It can, as it does with Worldwide, argue that such commercial initiatives ease the burden on licence fee payers.

The corporation's strongest argument is one it has some trepidation in using. The BBC can argue that revenue raised through on-demand iPlayer repeats is much, much fairer and more progressive than its primary (regressive) revenue stream today. In fact, nothing is fairer than paying for something you use as it relieves the non-user of having to subsidise you. But once the BBC has embarked on this rocky rhetorical road, it's in entirely new territory. That will not be a comfortable place to be for its current executives, and much of the BBC old guard.

It's probably too late to turn back the clock to a time when there were two broadcasters, three channels, and you had to travel thousands of miles to see any other TV. But what's to lose? The Beeb may as well get its full brass section out for this one. ®

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