BBC at 100: what does the future hold for at-threat institution?

The British Broadcasting Corporation is facing looming funding cuts amid digital ‘transformation’ of media

BBC chair Richard Sharp has insisted that the broadcaster’s “best days are ahead” as the institution turns 100 today.

The centenary is being celebrated with a week of specials of programmes including Doctor Who, Antiques Roadshow and Top Gear. King Charles is starring in an episode of The Repair Shop, and the Royal Mint has released a commemorative 50p coin.

But amid drastic budget cuts and changing viewing habits, the “next few years are likely to determine whether the BBC survives in a recognisable form by the end of the decade”, said The Guardian’s media editor Jim Waterson.

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What the papers said

The BBC’s founders were “a tiny band of young visionaries” funded by wireless manufacturers who sought to create “a new public space, using the technological boundlessness of broadcast”, wrote the BBC’s official historian Jean Seaton, a professor at Westminster University, in an article on The Conversation.

The British Broadcasting Company – which later became the British Broadcast Corporation – was formed on 18 October 1922 and began broadcasting the following month. Since then, the broadcaster has “parcelled up disaster and defeat” to be distributed to audiences “after the pips and before the weather forecast”, said The Economist. The BBC “has a special place in Britain’s broadcasting landscape”, said Euractiv, and its “influence extends far beyond” as “one of the small island nation’s most visible and respected global brands”.

But “the bond” between the BBC and audiences “is breaking”, added The Economist. As “smartphones and streaming have switched off communal TVs and radios”, viewing figures among younger consumers have “collapsed” and the corporation is “increasingly irrelevant to many”.

The BBC’s long history has also been “littered with explosive conflicts with the government of the day”, said Seaton on The Conversation. The broadcaster has been in governments’ “firing line” over its coverage of events ranging from the 1956 Suez invasion and apartheid in South Africa to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. And BBC claims against Tony Blair’s government during the Iraq War triggered a judicial inquiry that “brought down a director general and chairman”.

Today, “in an age of deliberate misinformation and malcontent, you might expect government to want a trusted, reliable institution such as the BBC to anchor people in reality”, Seaton continued. But in recent years, “the political attacks have only intensified”.

Then culture secretary Nadine Dorries “effectively kickstarted a public debate” on the broadcaster’s future in January, when the government announced BBC funding cuts, said the broadcaster’s culture editor Katie Razzall. Dorries confirmed that the licence fee – which accounted for 74% of the corporation’s funding in 2020-2021 – would be frozen for two years.

And the fee may be abolished from 2027, when the BBC’s charter will be up for renewal.

What next?

“There are, to be sure, mounting reasons to review the system,” said the Financial Times’s editorial board following the fee-freeze announcement. But Dorries’s warning that the BBC should address “impartiality problems” made “clear that a fee model originally meant to shield the broadcaster from interference has become a tool of political pressure”.

Deciding the BBC’s future “should not be the preserve of a government of any political hue”, the paper argued. “Proposals should be drawn up by a cross-party commission” that views the BBC as “a public good to be preserved, with some universal funding”.

But with cuts already biting and more almost certainly “on the way”, said the BBC’s Razzall, “audiences will see a difference in the years ahead”.

The BBC World Service last month announced that more than 380 jobs were being axed. In a statement, the broadcaster said that “high inflation, soaring costs, and a cash-flat licence fee settlement have led to tough choices across the BBC”, which was striving “to create a modern, digital-led and streamlined organisation”.

The broadcaster “has to be able seduce audiences who have a near-unlimited choice of options”, said The Guardian’s Waterson, and to compete with rivals with “bigger budgets and few of the political and regulatory obligations to serve the whole country”. And this “transformation has to take place after a decade of real-terms cuts” to BBC funding.

The broadcaster is also struggling to retain top talent, losing journalists including Emily Maitlis and Andrew Marr over the past year.

The Economist predicted that “catastrophe is unlikely, but decline of some sort probable” for the BBC.

Britain might follow the Europe-wide trend of TV licences being “abolished” and replaced with with new funding systems, “sometimes with the acquiescence of the existing public broadcasters who welcome a shift to future-proofed forms of funding”, said Waterson.

As the centenary celebrations kick off, BBC staff “are aware that the corporation could look very different by its 110th birthday”, he added.

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