Just how did the BBC’s popularity become an argument against it?

The BBC’s popularity, both in the UK and abroad, should be welcomed not disparaged.

The political soundtrack surrounding the BBC has once again turned ominous. John Whittingdale. The Culture Secretary has implied that the Corporation has become too large and has strayed from its core mission. He’s even discussed moving from the licence fee to a subscription model.

Responding to this torrent of depreciation in an article for Den of Geek, Simon Brew skewers the most counter-intuitive argument that’s made against the Corportation:

Yet it seems the popularity of the BBC – certainly in the current political climate – may yet be its Kryptonite. There appears to be a growing feeling amongst the current government that the BBC should be using its substantive receipts from the licence fee to fund more niche programming, rather than chasing ratings. In the last month, we’ve learned that over £600m from the BBC’s coffers is set to fund the licence fee for over 75s, at a time when job cuts at the corporation are already being announced. Yet that’s just the beginning of what most concede to be times of real change for the organisation.

Ultimately, on the surface at least, it’s the high ratings that continue to paint a target on the BBC’s back. The argument runs that the BBC should use the bulk of its money – as it actually does, but let’s go with it for a second – on more niche programming. Why spend the money on shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders, when there’s no commercial organisation that wouldn’t? (overlooking, of course, the fact that the BBC took a gamble on both to start with. And that through its most popular show, EastEnders, it’s given a voice to issues that struggle otherwise to get an airing).

It’s not tricky to see the road ahead with the argument here, and it doesn’t point to a happy future for the corporation. Let’s say the BBC stops mixing in populist output amongst its content. It would be fair to assume that its ratings would drop. When said ratings drop, in comes the next argument: why should everyone have to pay a licence fee, when the programmes just aren’t as popular any more?

I not only wholeheartedly agree with this argument but actually think it can also take on a global dimension. I’ve already blogged this week about how the BBC helps to raise the UK’s prestige and status around the world. We tend to think of this as being about news but it’s much wider than that. Top Gear has/had (?) a larger audience than the entire World Service. Budget cuts may already have forced the BBC to stop broadcasting in Mandarin (because Mandarin speaking people aren’t an important audience right?) and the Communist Party may block its website but there’s still a Sherlock themed café in Shanghai. So even if you think ITV can pick up the slack at home, you should still want the BBC to flex those mass appeal muscles so it can remain popular abroad.

Indeed, this is part of the reason why a subscription model misses the point. Whether or not you watch the programs the BBC makes, you are still benefiting from the work it does as an ambassador for our country.

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