Boxed in: Why free TV licences for the over-75s should be scrapped

It’s amazing that in our political hailstorm, I get most worked up by an issue that won’t even directly affect me for another 50 years. But when the BBC announced it was following through with scrapping free TV licences for the over-75s, my immediate reaction was wholly positive. This move was looming since 2015 when the BBC agreed a deal with then-chancellor George Osborne to pay the cost of free licences. Reactions were strong at the time, but this recent announcement will be a much more furious anger.

I’m firmly in favour of scrapping the concession. This has immediately presented a problem. Those who have announced that they are on my side of the argument have been accused of ageism, discrimination, and supporting austerity. The front-pages of yesterday’s newspapers were bombastic.

Notice the language. ‘Betrayal’, ‘Outrage’, Furious’, ‘Cruel’. This kind of rhetoric is eerily similar to the blustering responses to the Brexit crisis. Such fury! Such a tempest of pure seething anger!

The unfortunate reality is that our political climate has informed this debate to make it even more intense. It’s a typical symbol of our age: conceited outrage over change.

Over-75s should without question pay the TV licence. The BBC viewing figures and audience studies have all reported the steady rise in the average age of a BBC viewer. Last September, the media researchers Enders Analysis reported that older people now make up 80% of the audience of popular daytime viewers, with an alarming rise in the over-55s being BBC One’s primary audience. They labelled this as an ‘existential threat’ to BBC and public broadcasting.

In March last year, the BBC annual plan reported they were losing younger viewers. Young people aged 16–24 spent more time watching Netflix than all other BBC TV services combined, including BBC iPlayer. That’s a significant statistic. They’re right to be worried. Digital streaming and online media have now become a huge competitor to ‘terrestrial’ television.

Ask yourself this: when was the last time you sat down and watched a BBC programme live, for any reason other than to watch a specific programme?

The BBC has made some dramatic transformations to improve its services. Their online provision with iPlayer and radio is a decent platform, one which eclipses the main channels. (ITV, All 4)

But it’s not enough to make these changes when digital content on Netflix and YouTube is only getting better and building more audiences.

So if this demographic is deserting the BBC in droves, and the main audience is older — who’s gonna pay?

The BBC statement announcing this change put emphasis on the move being of ‘fairness’. If you’re over 75, and receive Pension Credit, you will still have a free licence. Only one person in a household needs this benefit to make the TV licence free. In terms of benefits, that’s a pretty jammy deal. Especially when the DWP reported last November that only six in ten eligible for Pension Credit actually claim it. That’s an estimate approximately 600k people not claiming a state benefit, which is rightfully theirs.

Compare that to the concessions that those on low income get if their not over-75: practically nothing. There’s not a discount, exemption or otherwise for those who can’t pay. Their suggestion is spacing out the payment to a monthly plan, instead of an upfront cost. But still not free.

So the over-75s are more likely to watch the BBC, more likely to be able to pay for a licence, and generally rely on the BBC more than other media such as online streaming. So surely, they should pay.

I don’t want this to be an argument of generations. Yes, it’s bloody hard not to think as a young person that this isn’t a convoluted argument. So let me put it in a much more reasonable way.

The BBC is a national institution, with a heritage and symbolism that is revered as deeply as the NHS. We also like to complain and groan about the BBC as much as the NHS. It has a place in our history that we may not realise. What TV did you watch when you were a kid? What comedies, dramas, soaps did you enjoy as you got home from work as a young adult?

So if we were to lose the BBC, both TV and radio, it would be a tremendous loss to the British creative media. If it is adequately funded, it provides creative and technical jobs across the UK and globally. Losing money wouldn’t just be an existential threat to the content the BBC produces — it would be a threat to even producing any content at all.

In a way, I owe my aspirations to the BBC. Writing about television comedy brings me closer to our recent history, exploring the writing and settings as an artefact of time.

Would it be so difficult to ask those who have benefited the most from the BBC, to continue to receive a brilliant service in exchange for a fee?

We all moan about the crap on television. Maybe paying for it might make it a hell of a lot better.

Writer. Regularly irritating. Moans about politics, Brexit, mental health, and culture. All views mine.

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