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EDITIONS
 Monday, 27 January, 2003, 13:01 GMT
BBC licence fee under fire again
EastEnders
EastEnders is one of the BBC's most popular shows
The BBC licence fee has come under attack from the deputy chairman of Channel 4, who said it should be abolished and part-funded by a subscription instead.

Barry Cox described the BBC as a "cultural tyranny - a largely benevolent one, admittedly, but a tyranny none the less".

But he added that its "great creative strength" across a whole range of programmes meant "it can and should afford, in the digital world, to rely on our willingness to pay for it voluntarily".

The BBC is overwhelmingly funded by the 2.3bn a year it receives from TV households paying the licence fee.

Tessa Jowell
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell recently said the BBC must "justify" its fee
This is not the first time the fee has been criticised - more than half of people polled about it suggested it should be abolished, according to survey in the Daily Telegraph last October.

As well as his post at Channel 4, Mr Cox is also chairman of the digital TV stakeholders' group, which was set up last year to promote digital TV and advise the government on policy.

Writing for The Guardian, Mr Cox said that when TV switches from analogue to digital, which he thought would be in 10 years' time, the majority of homes in the UK "will effectively become electronic retail outlets".

While this would be a "highly positive development", he cited three major obstacles "which could frustrate such an outcome" saying:

  • The law prevents ITV and Channel 4 from charging for any of the programmes on their core services

  • The BBC licence fee would have be replaced by subscription

  • Viewers have to pay for channels they do not watch on cable and satellite TV in order to watch premium channels, such as sport and film networks

Mr Cox also suggested that increased competition due to a larger number of channels available would increase pressure on advertisement-funded channels.

They would end up restricting their programmes to those that appeal to the most valuable audiences, such as younger people, he said.

This would mean that programmes such as expensive drama, comedy and documentaries would "rarely find a place on channels in the digital era".

Mr Cox said a way around this would be for ITV and Channel 4 viewers to pay directly for such programmes.

Huw Edwards, who fronts the BBC's Ten O'Clock News
Mr Cox said impartial news on at least two channels must be available
Another suggestion was for the existing pay-TV market to be "substantially reformed" so viewers could pay for individual channels rather than whole packages of channels on offer.

At least two competing "impartial and high quality news and current affairs services" would have to be available to everyone free, while a range of "other culturally desirable services" would need to be free or "at an affordable price".

The BBC was unavailable for comment.


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