The secret history of conditional access
Funding the BBC using Conditional Access technology isn't a new idea, and was proposed as part of the 2006 Charter. The technology is very old, and involves a set-top box with a removable card. If the user hasn't paid their fee, they don't receive a working card, and can't watch the programmes.
The technology allows the BBC to continue to make some programming free-to-air and universally available, while the other channels would require proof of payment.
The advantage of conditional access is fairness. Currently, the affluent middle class are in the happy position of having poorer people subsidise services that wealthy people consume. The middle class is "superserved" by the BBC, while the non-payers (socio-economic groups C2,D and E) consume little or no BBC output. (The poor rarely appear on TV either, except as criminals or benefits scroungers – but that's another story).
So conditional access would bring the BBC into the modern world, bringing it into line with pay-for-what-you-use revenue structures widespread across media.
The BBC counters that many people pay taxes for services that they don't personally use: the childless pay for schools, non-car-owning cyclists pay for motorways, and pacifists pay for defence. The counter-counter-argument (one deployed by both sides) is that all these non-payers receive indirect benefits: cyclists are safer because motorways remove traffic from A-roads, for example, while everyone is safer with a professional military, rather than ad hoc militia.
A decade ago, the BBC pushed back hard, and killed the conditional access proposal – fearing that it would make the BBC look like "any other subscription service". But today, when that same comparison is made, the BBC doesn't come out too badly.
David Elstein told MPs heard in evidence sessions that the BBC would see little negative impact on revenue – because most households receiving the BBC would simply opt-in as they signed up to Virgin or Sky – and would probably see an increase, because the middle class value their Radio 4 so much.
The BBC has seen a 50 per cent increase in real revenue over 30 years thanks to the explosion of households in the UK, something not envisaged when the state seized Britain's once-independent broadcasters in 1927.
These are sums anyone can do. If 20 per cent of today's payers stopped paying altogether, 40 per cent paid more (double today's fee, or £5.59 per week) and 20 per cent paid treble (or £8.39 per week) then the BBC's income from UK residents would exceed £5bn a year, compared with the £3bn it raises through the current system.
A week-long pass to Sky Movies, Sport and Entertainment via Now TV costs almost £30 for a week (roughly speaking – the Movies ticket buys you longer).
Maybe he's on to something? ®