Boris Johnson: We might consider ditching the TV licence in Britain

We’ve stayed away from the UK election on this site because, let’s face it, it’s impossible to escape it at the moment, but this has some relevance to Ireland, given the well-known problems at RTE. Boris Johnson says this morning, in Sunderland, that he may take the opposite route to that being proposed by the Irish Government:

We’ll add the full video when it’s up.

The BBC and RTE share a basic funding model – they are paid for by the public in the form of a licence fee charged to everybody who owns a television. In the UK, this already comes with a charter for the BBC that prevents it from competing with commercial channels for advertising. RTE has no such restrictions on it, hoovering up the licence fee, taking advertising away from its commercial rivals, and still, somehow, managing to make massive losses.

In Ireland, the ongoing debate in the political class is about how to extract more money from the public to pour into RTE. The latest idea, which went somewhat under the radar back in November, is to place, in effect, an extra tax on the hospitality sector, and prisons:

“There has been a call for hotels and prisons to pay for more than one TV licence because they have multiple sets on their premises.

This evening, Senators debated the financial crisis in RTÉ after the broadcaster unveiled recent cutbacks.

Fianna Fáil Senator Gerry Horkan said the Government had kicked the can down the road in terms of the licence fee and how it is collected.

Senator Horkan said he couldn’t understand how some places with multiple TV sets such as prisons and hotels were only paying for one licence per building, he said the charging mechanism needed to change.”

Of course, the problem with that is straightforward enough – if hotels and prisons have to pay a licence for each television, why not private homes? There are plenty of Irish families with more than one set – why do they get off scot free? In terms of prisons, or schools, or hospitals, or other public bodies with more than one television, the proposal amounts to little more than robbing existing public services to fund another.

RTE’s most beloved programme, the Toy Show, was by any standards a huge success this year, pulling in 76% of the available viewers. Such successes are almost unheard of in modern broadcasting, given the amount of choice available to viewers. And yet, almost a quarter of the viewing population gave it a miss, and were watching something else that night. Most nights, the share of the population who are not watching RTE is much higher – which is the main reason why the station is in such difficulty in the first place.

And so, for many of us, the prospect before us is that we will be forced to pay yet more for a channel that we do not watch. An annual Netflix subscription, remember, costs less than the TV licence, and the choice of material on offer is indisputably higher. We’re paying more and more, for relatively less and less. And there are no voices in the political class of any significance willing to say so.

Which is what makes Boris Johnson’s intervention this afternoon more interesting. A senior politician – the most senior, in fact – being willing to openly question the continued viability of charging people to subsidise one competitor in an open media marketplace is a significant moment.

The BBC, of course, has other funding options. It could quite easily switch to an advertising model and presumably replace at least a substantial part of any lost revenue. In addition, the content it produces is globally marketable – RTE rarely produces anything like “Seven Worlds, One Planet”, for example. RTE’s scale is a weakness, because it has gotten itself into a position where it is spending so much to produce its existing content that expanding its offering is simply out of the question.

The primary problem for both the BBC and RTE is that either of their countries could survive perfectly well without them, and they are entirely reliant on a public attachment to the notion of “public service broadcasting” which is no longer reflected in the viewing habits of the public.

At some point, the public are going to tire of paying for content they don’t watch. It could be that Boris Johnson is the politician ahead of the game on this one, while our own leaders scrabble around for ways to line RTE’s pockets in a way that is politically acceptable.

It can’t last forever.

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