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Why A Pay-For BBC Online Could Back-Fire On The Whingers

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The calls are getting slowly louder that the BBC should start charging for its websites. And typically, they all come from commercial rivals who don’t enjoy protection from the recession.

James Murdoch’s vitriolic Edinburgh speech (hyperbolic and, at times, downright inaccurate) was one thing; now Five CEO Dawn Airey is wondering aloud whether Auntie should charge for everything bar a few broadcast channels.

But the belief that the BBC charging for content would somehow put everyone on a level playing field and rescue the critics is misplaced.

For starters, it ignores the fact that the BBC already charges for its websites as part of the £142.50 annual TV licence, while it’s commercial competitors who offer their material for free with ad support. That makes their protestations ironic.

No; what we’re really talking about here is the compulsion to pay – that is, whether BC Online or its constituent BBC News site should be funded by the licence fee or not. But, contrary to what some competitors seem to think, even if public service content was made commercial during a time of what can be regarded as market failure, any removal of this compulsion is unlikely to result in the hoped-for removal of said sites from the marketplace…

Instead, they would merely be transferred to the auspices of BBC Worldwide. The day after this happens, rival website owners would wake up knowing what was Britain’s most popular news website is now free for commercialisation by one of its most successful private media companies.

But this commercialisation is unlikely to mean asking users to pay; BBC Worldwide doesn’t even charge for most BBC content overseas, and why thrust that model upon it when the newspapers face enough challenges implementing that model themselves? It’s more probable, and would be far neater, that it simply starts selling ads to UK BBC.co.uk users, as it is now doing outside Britain…

The effect of the naysayers’ argument, then, would be to to free the most popular site in the land to gobble up what advertising spend is left. Is that what you really want?

5 Responses to “Why A Pay-For BBC Online Could Back-Fire On The Whingers”

  1. Patrick King

    Hi Robert,

    Fair comments with arguments for and against each. Interesting to note that the Financial Times FT.com is doing very well and News International are about to join them. It's not the news that people will pay for – it's all the value add and premium content around it. In the US – News Print @ and new-media services are also on-board with the new thinking that if you give something away for 'free' that's exactly what it is worth. We are going to see more and more organisations charging for content – the BBC will have to adjust to fit in with the new order as will many others.

  2. Robert Andrews

    Patrick,

    "The BBC is an institution competing in the media/news/content space way beyond the remit of its original charter"

    — But then, the charter was first developed in 1927. TV wasn't around, let alone the internet.

    "There is nothing wrong in keeping the TV license revenue to pay for the production of its own broadcast content and operations."

    — See above. The thinking is, be medium-agnostic. It's about public-service *content*, not *media*.

    "Its new-media service channels should be self funding – i.e. chargeable to be on a level footing with the rest of the industry. "

    — Oh, well which newspapers charge for content today? Exactly, hardly any. Online papers are as free as the BBC, just funded by ads. This is my point – there will be no "chargeable" BBC News Online – it would be ad-supported, and that would put it against the rest of them in competition for ad spend, thereby making it only a bigger monster.

  3. Patrick King

    The BBC is an institution competing in the media/news/content space way beyond the remit of its original charter as a public information service broadcaster. Why should the BBC be subsidised by the tax payer to unfairly compete with other broadcasters, publishers and news orgaisations. There is nothing wrong in keeping the TV license revenue to pay for the production of its own broadcast content and operations. It is morally abhorrent for it to use these funds to compete in the on-line space against Newspapers, Publishers, on-line service providers and others. Its new-media service channels should be self funding – i.e. chargeable to be on a level footing with the rest of the industry.