What is the point of the BBC in an era of Netflix and Amazon Prime?

Saturday 17 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Conservatory, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

The BBC is set to have its charter renewed at the end of 2016, but the government seems keen to ensure it is not simply rubber stamped. Public trust in the corporation has fallen after the Jimmy Saville revelations, with 62% saying it needs a radical overhaul. But perhaps a more radical threat is that the way people view TV has changed. Ofcom has warned that the switch to online viewing is part of a greater structural shift. While the BBC had done well to adapt to this trend, with its popular iPlayer service, the increasing popularity of subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime is squeezing public broadcasting and live TV more generally. In news and current affairs, the BBC’s famed ‘impartiality’ is not only constantly contested as a sham, it is seen as outdated in an era of Vice News and BuzzFeed. 

Supporters of the BBC and its licence fee, however, insist that without public service broadcasting we would see a race to the bottom. Even as things are, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, has suggested it’s time for the BBC to stop trying to be ‘all things to all people’ and compromise on quality to compete with its commercial rivals. But perhaps the real challenge comes from new broadcasting players that seem able to produce quality, cutting-edge TV that is also commercially viable, like Netflix’s award-wining House of Cards. Netflix even rebuffed the BBC’s approach to co-produce its £50m Helen Mirren royal epic The Crown, on what BBC director Danny Cohen described as a ‘classic BBC subject’. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s boss, has highlighted the fact that his company received 11 Emmy nominations for its Transparent comedy series and debuted six new TV pilots for children. Amazon even recently bagged former Top Gear trio, Clarkson, Hammond and May, for its new multi-million motoring programme in what is symbolically a very direct challenge to the BBC. Award-winning BBC 1 DJ Zane Lowe Zane also left the network for a job with Apple’s new iTunes radio service earlier this year. 

Should the BBC be using its licence fee money to keep pace with its new rivals? Do we need the state to intervene for great content to be produced? Can the BBC, notoriously bureaucratic and whose parody programme W1A is considered far too close to reality, become a modern institution fit for the 21st century? Are those determined to abolish the BBC too ready to sacrifice a jewel in the crown of British culture for the sake of an ideology or saving a relatively modest amount of taxpayers money? What, if any, is the role of public broadcasting today?

Listen to the debate

Martin Durkin

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Marie Kinsey
joint head of department, Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield

John Mair
editor and journalism lecturer; co-editor, The BBC Today: future uncertain

Ed Cottingham
media analyst and researcher
Recommended readings
Wolf Hall director blasts culture secretary over 'ideological' BBC cuts

Peter Kosminsky met with John Whittingdale to discuss cuts he says are rooted in Tories’ dislike of pre-election coverage

Kevin Rawlinson, Guardian, 25 September 2015

A Netflix-style US service is a smart move for the BBC

The BBC plans to launch an internet streaming service – it could end up saving the broadcaster’s skin

Thomas McMullan, alphr, 18 September 2015

The BBC Is Creating a Netflix-Style Streaming Site

The British broadcaster is hoping to raise revenues while adapting to the television model of the future.

David Sims, The Atlantic, 17 September 2015

The television license fee should be abolished

Debating Matters' acclaimed Topic Guides place debates in a social context

Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng, Debating Matters, 28 August 2015

Armando Iannucci urges BBC to monetise its programmes overseas and resist 'prejudiced' Tory attacks

'If the BBC were a weapons system, half the Cabinet would be on a plane to Saudi Arabia to tell them how brilliant it was'

Ian Burrell, Independent, 26 August 2015

Veep creator Armando Iannucci tells BBC to stop interfering with programme makers

Iannucci says US television companies like HBO and Netflix have learned from the culture of the BBC 10 or 15 years ago when programme makers had more freedom

Christopher Williams, Telegraph, 26 August 2015

The Observer view on the future of the BBC

The BBC is by no measure a global player, but it must jealously guard its hard-earned creative reputation

Observer, 2 August 2015

The public broadcaster without a public

The BBC’s biggest problem is that it patronises and segments its audience.

Blair Spowart, spiked, 15 July 2015

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.