According to the Director General of the BBC Tony Hall, BBC iPlayer is not on the road to becoming a subscription-only service. Some feared this may have been where the service was headed following a recent decision to introduce encryption.
The encryption in question is designed to prevent BBC programmes from being accessed online by those who do not have a TV licence. According to Hall, the licence fee system “isn’t broken” but it is out of date. In its current form, it leaves a loophole open for viewers to watch television programmes without paying by accessing them online shortly after broadcast. “We are saying we believe in the licence fee,” Hal said, “but also saying it needs to change and modernise.”
The upcoming encryption of the BBC’s online catch-up service, Hall maintains, is designed simply to plug this gap and return to a situation where viewers must pay their licence fee in order to watch television. It is not, as some suspected, a first step in limiting the service on the way to introducing subscription fees.
In particular, the idea that this may indicate an upcoming move towards a subscription model was suggested by Lord Burns, chairman of Channel 4. In response to the accusation, Hall said that “if you get away from the licence fee and go down the subscription model … you will change the nature of what the BBC is about.”
Hall went on to say that “the BBC is about brilliant programs for everyone” along democratic lines. “As soon as you start building paywalls,” he claimed, “you begin to diminish that democratic process.”
According to James Purnell, who is director of strategy and digital at the BBC, the fact the rules surrounding the licence fee have not previously been updated is “odd.” Purnell said that “there is a question of how the licence fee works in practice” regarding new technology and the availability of online catch-up. He suggested that this is an issue that could be sorted out through a parliamentary process, with the licence fee rules being amended to make payment mandatory for those who use catch-up services rather than live broadcasts to view TV programmes.
This is not the first time subscriptions for the BBC has been discussed, and Purnell made a particular effort to dismiss one subscription model that has previously been suggested. The idea in question would see a licence fee paid in order to receive “core” services from the BBC, with an optional “top up” subscription required for additional services. According to Purnell, this model has two fatal flaws. Firstly, it would be very difficult to decide what was and was not a “core” service. Secondly, people would either lose several services and save an estimated £1.40 per month, or receive all services but pay double the licence fee.
Ultimately, Purnell said of the licence fee: “we believe everyone wins because everyone pays. We believe the licence fee is the right system for the future.”