A modest revenue proposal to the BBC

I love BBC domestic programming (such as Radio 4, which I have to dig to find on the BBC website if I’m coming in from a non-UK IP address, as I am now), and would like to pay as much for it as any UK citizen does through taxes.

Let’s say we come up with a way to do that (preferably without DRM), perhaps along the lines of EmanciPay, or perhaps though something more coercive.

Would the BBC welcome that? Or must the domestic fare remain restricted to domestic consumption for reasons other than economic ones?

Put another way, would the BBC prefer that, when nearly all radio listening and video watching becomes digital, and happens over Net connections, even visitors to the UK should be kept on the outside?

And if we techies come up with a way to bring more money to the BBC from both inside and outside the Kingdom, would they turn it down?

If not, I want to on that.

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15 Responses to A modest revenue proposal to the BBC

  1. There are an amazing number of people who currently pay a ‘subscription’ overseas to get BBC programming, it’s just that the subscription IS NOT paid to the BBC.

    VPN services in the UK are advertised heavily on the Internet and sites like britishexpats.com. With a UK IP address, the BBC iPlayer is a fully functioning and workable application even if you are based in the USA. There are live streams of BBC TV programs, access to geo-restricted radio content (i.e. soccer matches) and of course the download and playback functions of the iPlayer. In addition, other UK TV services, such as ITV currently stream channels 1-4 of their stations, essentially giving you a tremendous amount of streamed video content from the UK for a very small fee each month.

    And the BEEB isn’t capitalizing on this at all, more than likely due to fears of cannibalizing their overseas sales, which are about £1 billion.


  2. What makes the BBC so much better than the endless drivel that is NPR is that the BBC is not funded by auction to the highest bidder. Your proposal trades off editorial independence for revenue and for that reason is a knife aimed at the heart of the BBC.

    The phrase “if we techies come up with a way” is always a danger sign, which you, being a conscientious writer, had signaled with “A modest…proposal.”

    Now, I have a modest counterproposal for you to consider as a countercredo:

    I love NPR programming and would like for it to be paid for as any UK citizens pay for the BBC, through taxes.

    If you can figure out how to do that, I will do whatever I can to implement it.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    As a UK citizen I don’t want you to be able to subscribe to domestic services. If people outside of the UK can subscribe on the same terms as a domestic consumer then the BBC will have to take your point of view into account when making the programs.

    The BBC domestic services are there to serve people in the UK with our perspective and should not need to worry about anybody else’s perspective. What you suggest would in all probability destroy what you seek to subscribe.

  4. Ian Waring says:

    I’ll trade your access to the BBC for our access to Hulu…

  5. Rikin says:

    As someone who was born in the U.K. and now resides stateside I whole-heartedly agree.

    I also believe that BBC America is a disservice to the BBC and to Americans by delaying some programs by up to a whole season. Top Gear for example is an entire season behind and Jonathon Ross is a week behind. The best segments of each show go viral and are found by Americans within hours of airing in the U.K. (Google Christopher Walken reads Lady Gaga).

    Though the BBC is allowed to support advertising internationally, I believe a subscription or paid model would work perfectly. And @Jack, I have a sneaking suspicion that those of us willing to pay for BBC radio and television programming want them to remain just how they are.

  6. I have read in the past discussions on why the BBC has to close down so much of it’s content and I am afraid it comes down to the age old issue of the licencing of material.
    At the simplest level if a program contains even a snippet of music then the BBC only have rights to broadcast that within the UK. This is why many of the programs are produced as podcasts that have been heavily edited to remove any such material.
    So in order for your idea to work the holders of digital “rights” need to realise that we now live in a global world and that their arbitary segmentation of the world no longer works.
    On that basis I regret that I am more likely to throw snowballs at Beelzebub than see it happen.

  7. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, John, Jack and Charlie. From what you’re saying, this sounds like an idea that is not only unwelcome, but won’t work.

    Still, glad I asked.

  8. Ian Falconer says:

    There is a little confusion over what we pay for here in the UK. Though Radio 4 is a BBC operation and funded through voluntary ‘taxation’, there is no legal obligation for us to pay to access it. The taxation is on ownership of equipment required to receive BBC TV signal, and only that. Radio is free if you don’t own a TV or use the internet. Semantics I know, but the relationship that BBC radio has with its domestic listeners is very much a non-commercial one and totally within the ‘public service broadcasting’ model. It’d be very interesting to know if Auntie (the BBC) had ever tried to sell its radio overseas, after all BBC worldwide sells lots of TV content.

    On the domestic issues; I don’t know that there is any ban on you paying for a UK TV license if you are an overseas resident, the license just needs to be tied to a UK address. Consider the situation of someone from New York owning a holiday cottage in the Scottish Highlands. If they have a TV in their bothy they must pay for a TV license or be prosecuted under UK law. So from that perspective the line between domestic and overseas citizenship is not really a valid one.
    The legal perspective of domestic vs overseas rights management is much more thorny, and just so that you know, we in the UK are just as affected by it when we want to access overseas content, so its not a one-way street by any means.

    I agree with Charlie that one way to address it is for the global trade and intellectual property barriers to come down, but there are others mainly involving the BBC expanding into overseas markets. Unfortunately, though the BBC is a ‘corporation’ it is not one that can freely enter overseas markets because of its funding mechanism. Most regulators will see an aggressive overseas government-funded organisation trying to muscle in on their country’s media space and, I predict, would stamp on it hard.

    Doc, you are currently left with only one sensible option. Move to the UK to get your Archers fix 😉

  9. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Ian.

    I suppose I should volunteer to pay a tax on the radio I carry with me when I visit the UK (which I do every few months). That would fit in the current funding scheme. It wouldn’t help when I come back home, of course. As you point out, any taxed UK radio is useless for getting domestic BBC fare anywhere outside signal range. For computers, that includes Net-based reception of streams picked up at non-UK IP addresses.

    The problem in the long run is that the Net will absorb most of broadcast, along with many other traditional media, and that the Net itself will at some point cease to be a collection of physical addresses and start becoming a collection of virtual ones. At that point what will matter are relationships.

    I seek a relationship with the BBC and many other sources of interesting fare, and I am interested not only in paying for that fare on a voluntary basis, but to institutionalize the means. That’s really what this post was about. Looking back at it, I should have explained that.

    For what it’s worth, brute protectionist approaches to intellectual property markets are doomed to defeat themselves by causing intolerable frictions. The BBC’s current approach, along with the UK’s, the US’s, and many more, are all in the same pickle. The approach I suggest is one piece of a much larger frame, but at least it’s a positive one.

  10. Ian Falconer says:

    I understand your perspective and appreciate the wider context of global data trade, even some of the virtual geographies involved, having been an internet techie in a previous life, but as you point out you are seeking a pan-content, globally institutionised solution in a net that is actually moving away from its ‘ideal’ monolithic state.

    I love that the web was flat. That everyone could get everywhere and that there was a global language, but in reaching person in every language and every character set it has started to fragment along national lines. The reach has resulted in contact with institutional systems wildly different from either the UK’s or the US’s approaches, which themselves have vastly different philosophical and historical narratives.

    A little example; The UK has been known for its excellence in production of Natural History documentaries for many, many years. Back in the day there were two competing production teams, the commercial Granada Studios and the BBC’s own Natural History Unit in Bristol. They used to produce primarily for UK consumption and both teams did a significant amount of filming in the UK itself. Now that a significant amount of the revenue derived from the rights to that content comes from overseas, almost no high quality Natural History is produced within the UK that is UK-focussed. We have a kind of low-rent reality nature TV using webcams and the like. Its endearing (sometimes), but I miss the good stuff. Both teams (whats left of them) now produce globalised nature pr0n. Its superb, high budget, innovative stuff that fills me with wonder, but it doesn’t educate me about my own cultural and historical context. It has moved away from representing me to presenting me with an alternative reality that is commercially viable.

    And that’s kind of the point. The BBC, as an institution, has a remit to ‘educate, inform and entertain’, it doesn’t have a remit to only do that for UK citizens. Does NBC, Fox or CNN, or indeed CCTV (China) have a similar, legally enshrined obligation ?
    I don’t mean to suggest that the BBC’s content is necessarily any better, rather that philosophy is already outward looking and has been for almost a century. Changing the BBC’s philosophy towards profit is objectionable to most UK citizens, but we tolerate commercial realities. Its irrelevant what the delivery media is.
    I wonder what changing CCTV’s philosophy away from being a political support for the Chinese govt and towards providing commercially successful content to a global audience would do ? I suspect that we won’t find out any time soon 😉

    I understand the long tail argument about back catalogue generating revenue and the Net as a dominant medium facilitating that, also the tread of technology towards a single media platform, such as IP, but unless the institutional philosophy of the broking solution that you are suggesting is compatible with the institutional philosophy of the organisations that are providing the content, the gap between provider and consumer is just being papered over.

    I’m not saying its not possible technically, or that its not desirable commercially, but the lasting relationship that you seek may not be achievable by commerce and technology alone. Sometimes being an honest broker is not enough. Both sides have to want to deal too.

    At the risk of sounding trite; relationships are two-way streets. Sometimes you get freebies, sometimes you pay over the odds, but you have to accept the other party warts and all if its to last.
    The warty visage that the UK has to offer, at present, for radio content is The World Service, which while not covering all domestic content by any means, gives a reasonable if slightly skewed cross section of Radio 4’s more outward facing content, but then it isn’t funded by the license fee.

    Maybe there’s a case to be made for an ‘Anglophiles and Ex-pats’ paywall, ‘bringing the UK to the world’ is one part of the BBC’s Royal Charter after all, but I doubt that its an idea that Sambrooke and Horrocks haven’t investigated. It may be worth getting in touch with them direct to find out which part of the BBC’s charter it contradicts ?

    And in the short term, before the walls come tumbling down around the globe as they surely will, if you are feeling guilty about stealing our radio shows whilst a guest in our country and you really want to make a contribution to funding the BBC, I am always willing to take donations towards my license fee. To make your calculations easier; the BBC spends £2.01 per month per license payer on radio and £0.61 for its online services. I’ll even put forward your position for you as a license payer. There you go ! Commerce finds a way. Who said that you can’t hold two fundamentally opposing views at the same time 😉

  11. Doc Searls says:

    Great response, Ian.

    Sad to hear the natural history programming story. I wonder if what changed there was fashion and low-brow competition, and not just the other factors. I believe that’s what has happened to PBS (our Public Broadcasting System here in the U.S.), as it has had to compete against a growing raft of cable channels from Discovery, National Geographic and so on. Those goods are are intellectually minimal, shallow, repetitious, sensationalized and generally meant to serve as brief periods of entertainment between long commercial breaks. PBS is still better, but I believe it has adjusted downward a bit.

    For what it’s worth, this post was meant in part as bait for Richard Sambrook (whom I know and like a great deal), but I probably should have set the hook with his name in there somewhere. (Hi, Richard!) I also see here that he is headed for another gig, but maybe we can get some dialog going anyway.

    In any case, I’d love to take you up on your offer to receive a donation toward your BBC license fees. Do you take payment in beer? I could cover a pint or few on my next trip over. 🙂 Maybe we could get Richard to join us. I think the last time I saw him, in fact, was in a Chelsea pub.

  12. Ian Falconer says:

    What a loss to the BBC. Shame.
    In direct contradiction to my bank manager’s advice I’m more than happy to take your contribution in kind, but you may have to run up a bit of a tab while you wait for me in London. I live at the other end of the country in Cornwall. You have my email though and I do come up to the smoke sometimes, so I’m sure that we can come to an arrangement 😉

  13. Francis Borg says:

    As somebody said, Radio 4 (the best station on Earth) and other domestic services on radio are not subject to licence issues and in fact they are all available on free to air satellite. In Europe they are on Astra 2B and can easily be accessed by anybody with a dish and a free to air receiver.
    Like the author I have a problem when in Italy, accessing Radio 4 on the laptop while travelling but when at my place in italy just switch on to the TV. The mind boggles why it is geoblocked online but free on satellite. TV on the other hand, is only transmitted on Astra 2D with a tight footprint but still available as wide as the north of Italy.

    Radio in particular, especially public service radio similar to Radio 4 should always be free to air across the globe. It enhances culture of nations across boundaries. Easy access to BBC Radio 4 is imperative for expats and others of foreign origin who want access the true British perspective rather than that funded by the British Foreign Office ie. the World service, good as it is.

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  15. Ian Falconer says:

    I’m going to submit this conversation to the consultation that the BBC has just opened on delivery systems. Hope that’s OK with you.


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