Leading article

In blockbuster Britain, the BBC is being left behind

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

2 October 2021

9:00 AM

There’s a great revival under way in the British TV and film industry, but it’s not the BBC that’s behind it. Netflix is normally secretive about its figures but this week published a list of its most popular shows and top of the pile is Bridgerton, which imagines Regency London as a racially mixed society. Although funded with US money, it is shot in Yorkshire with a British cast, using British technical know-how, and, thanks to Netflix’s global audience of more than 200 million, this British show has now become the most-watched series in the history of television.

Not so long ago, it was argued that subscription television would never work in Britain because we had all the broadcasting we could wish for. Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ have now spectacularly disproved that assumption, with 32 million subscribers in Britain. They’ve raised billions of pounds which, in turn, is helping to finance a revolution in TV production. As the BBC looks on, the world of television is being transformed — thanks to American investment.

British companies now lead the world in visual effects, for example. Six of the last eight Oscars awarded in that discipline went to British firms. American blockbusters are now as likely to be made in Britain as in Hollywood. Netflix and Disney have struck long-term deals with Pinewood and Shepperton studios, booking them years in advance. The owners of Sunset Studios in Los Angeles recently bought a 91-acre site in Hertfordshire. Some £450 million is being spent expanding Pinewood.

If there ever were an example of how Britain can flourish beyond membership of the EU, the television and film industry is it. World over, there is demand for high-end British productions — not just because of the actors and the British countryside, but because of our technology know-how and production skills. Earlier this year Amazon announced that it has decided to film the new Lord of the Rings TV series not in New Zealand but in Britain. Northern Ireland, which once impinged itself on global consciousness for all the wrong reasons, is now better known as home to the Game of Thrones. Some 350,000 Game of Thrones fans a year visit, according to Tourism NI.

The ambition and scale of the British drama commissioned by American channels is astonishing. The Crown had a budget of £10 million per episode. Claire Foy’s replica dress for the Coronation scene cost £25,000 to make and the scene in Ely Cathedral took five days to shoot. This is, in part, why Rupert Murdoch sold Sky. He realised that even he could never compete financially.

Where does this leave the Beeb? Once, the licence fee was justified on the grounds that only the BBC could afford to make world-class drama. Now, the subscription services have budgets that the BBC cannot hope to match. The BBC still has its successes, like the televised version of the Sally Rooney novel Normal People. But these successes are ever rarer.

Many of the BBC’s light entertainment shows, such as Strictly Come Dancing, have a faithful audience, but it’s becoming obvious that it’s a shadow of what it could be if it had the commercial freedom and ambition of Netflix. Instead of growing a global audience, it is stuck forever trying to please a diminishing band of licence-fee payers, many of them reluctant ones at that. As a result, the BBC is stuck in a no man’s land. Is it a worthy and educational public service broadcaster or a ratings-chasing commercial broadcaster? It doesn’t know. When pleading for an increase in the licence fee it proclaims its lofty Reithian ideals — but these are quickly abandoned in favour of game shows, competitive scheduling and comedy once the money has been secured. The BBC’s land grab means it is stretching itself thin with a 24-hour News Channel that is a glorified headline–reading service. Flagship shows like Newsnight are now so neglected that they can barely afford crew members to move the set furniture around.

For an increasing number of younger viewers, the BBC is becoming an irrelevance. The number of TV licences has plunged a full million since peaking at 25.8 million in 2017/18 — although 300 licence-evaders are being dragged through the magistrates’ courts every day. The BBC’s income is static, but not, for the most part, because people are breaking the law by owning a television and not paying for a licence. It’s because increasing numbers of people see no reason to own a television now that they can access brilliant, funny, well made programmes on their laptops and phones.

The fact that UK companies have cornered the market in specialist areas like sound and visual effects is a cause for celebration. It is a reminder, too, of the power of tax breaks. Low taxes and commercial freedom can also provide the perfect environment for other parts of our newly independent UK economy thrive.

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