Why A Pay-For BBC Online Could Backfire On The Whiners

The calls are getting slowly louder that the BBC should start charging for its websites. And typically, they all come from commercial rivals who don’t enjoy protection from the recession.

James Murdoch’s vitriolic Edinburgh speech (hyperbolic and, at times, downright inaccurate) was one thing; now Five CEO Dawn Airey is wondering aloud whether Auntie should charge for everything bar a few broadcast channels.

But the belief that the BBC charging for content would somehow put everyone on a level playing field and rescue the critics is misplaced.

For starters, it ignores the fact that the BBC already charges for its websites as part of the £142.50 ($233) annual TV license, while it’s commercial competitors who offer their material for free with ad support. That makes their protestations ironic.

No; what we’re really talking about here is the compulsion to pay – that is, whether BBC Online or its constituent BBC News site should be funded by the license fee or not. But, contrary to what some competitors seem to think, even if public service content was made commercial during a time of what can be regarded as market failure, any removal of this compulsion is unlikely to result in the hoped-for removal of said sites from the marketplace.

Instead, they would merely be transferred to the auspices of BBC Worldwide. The day after this happens, rival website owners would wake up knowing what was Britain’s most popular news website is now free for commercialization by one of its most successful private media companies.

But this commercialization is unlikely to mean asking users to pay; BBC Worldwide doesn’t even charge for most BBC content overseas, and why thrust that model upon it when the newspapers face enough challenges implementing that model themselves? It’s more probable, and would be far neater, that it simply starts selling ads to UK BBC.co.uk users, as it is now doing outside Britain.

The effect of the naysayers’ argument, then, would be to free the most popular site in the land to gobble up what advertising spend is left. Is that what you really want?