The BBC is being left behind in blockbuster Britain

29 September 2021

11:00 PM

29 September 2021

11:00 PM

There’s a great revival under way inthe 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 mostpopular shows and top of the pile is Bridgerton, which imagines Regency London asa racially mixed society. Although fundedwith US money, it is shot in Yorkshire witha British cast, using British technical know-how, and, thanks to Netflix’s global audienceof more than 200 million, this British showhas now become the most-watched series inthe history of television.

Not so long ago, it was argued that subscription television would never work inBritain because we had all the broadcastingwe could wish for.

Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ havenow spectacularly disproved that assumption, with 32 million subscribers in Britain.They’ve raised billions of pounds which, inturn, is helping to finance a revolution intelevision production. As the BBC looks on,the world of television is being transformed— thanks to American investment.

British companies now lead the worldin visual effects, for example. Six of thelast eight Oscars awarded in that disciplinewent to British firms. American blockbusters are now as likely to be made in Britainas in Hollywood. Netflix and Disney havestruck long-term deals with Pinewood andShepperton studios, booking them years inadvance. The owners of Sunset Studios inLos Angeles recently bought a 91-acre sitein Hertfordshire. Some £450 million is beingspent expanding Pinewood.

If there ever were an example of howBritain can flourish beyond membership ofthe EU, the television and film industry isit. World over, there is demand for high-end British productions — not just because ofthe actors and the British countryside, butbecause of our technology know-how andproduction skills. Earlier this year Amazon announced that it has decided to filmthe new Lord of the Rings TV series not inNew Zealand but in Britain. Northern Ireland, once notorious, is now better knownas home to the Game of Thrones. Some350,000 Game of Thrones fans a year visit,according to Tourism NI.

The ambition and scale of the Britishdrama commissioned by American channelsis astonishing. The Crown had a budget of£10 million per episode. Claire Foy’s replica dress for the Coronation scene cost £25,000to make and the scene in Ely Cathedraltook five days to shoot. This is, in part, whyRupert Murdoch sold Sky. He realised thateven he could never compete financially.

So where does this leave the Beeb?Once, the licence fee was justified on thegrounds that only the BBC could afford tomake world-class drama. Now, the subscription services have budgets that the BBCcannot hope to match. The BBC still has itssuccesses. The televised version of the SallyRooney novel Normal People was a BBCproduction, filmed in Belfast. But these successes are ever rarer.

Many of the BBC’s light entertainmentshows, such as Strictly Come Dancing, havea faithful audience, but it’s becoming obvious that it’s a shadow of what it could be if ithad the commercial freedom and ambitionof Netflix. Instead of growing a global audience, it is stuck forever trying to please adiminishing band of UK licence-fee payers,many of them reluctant ones at that. And asa result, the BBC is stuck in a no man’s land.Is it a worthy and educational public servicebroadcaster or a ratings-chasing commercialbroadcaster? It doesn’t know. When pleading for an increase in the licence fee it proclaims its lofty Reithian ideals — but theseare quickly abandoned in favour of gameshows, competitive scheduling and comedy programmes once the money has beensecured. The BBC’s land grab means it isstretching itself thin with a 24-hour news channel that is a glorified headline-readingservice. Flagship shows like Newsnightare now so neglected that they can barelyafford crew members to move the set furniture around.

For an increasing number of especiallyyounger viewers, the BBC is becoming anirrelevance. The number of TV licences hasplunged a full million since peaking at 25.8million in 2017/18 — although 3,000 licence-evaders a day are being dragged throughthe magistrates’ courts. The BBC’s incomeis static, but not, for the most part, becausepeople are breaking the law by owning atelevision and not paying for a licence. It’sbecause increasing numbers of people seeno reason to own a television now that theycan access brilliant, funny, well-made programmes on their laptops and phones.

This is a good news story, not a reason tocomplain. The fact that UK companies havecornered the market in specialist areas likesound and visual effects is a cause for celebration. It is a reminder, too, of the powerof tax breaks. Low taxes and commercialfreedom can also provide the perfect environment for other parts of our newly independent UK economy to thrive.

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This is the leading article from the forthcoming edition of The Spectator, out tomorrow.

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