As a drama executive Ben Stephenson has overseen some of the BBC’s biggest hits of the past eight years, including Sherlock, Doctor Who, Line of Duty and Poldark.
He’s now leaving the Corporation, having been poached to run the TV department of Bad Robot, the company owned and run by Star Wars and Star Trek director JJ Abrams.
But in his farewell interview with Radio Times this week, the outgoing controller of drama commissioning (pictured below) has delivered a passionate defence of the BBC, insisting that the government must increase the licence fee in order to save some of Britain’s most loved shows.
The 38-year-old says that freezing the fee – which is capped at its 2010 sum of £145.50 until 31st March 2017 – is a real-term decrease when you factor in inflation, and must stop.
He says: “It really can’t keep cutting… and the truth is the market isn’t going to fill the gap of the BBC. There will be less drama and fewer jobs. It doesn’t make sense on an economic level. We do need to increase the licence fee… but I am leaving the country so people have to decide what they want to do.
“There isn’t TV in this country, there is the BBC. It wasn’t TV that started, it was the BBC. Someone invented the TV but it was the BBC that invented British television. You can’t just pull the rug from under that and think that nothing is going to change. And the BBC will be the poorer for it.
“We are funded less than we were in 2000. That’s not a moan, it’s a fact. So you look at your slate in a different way – it’s a reason why you don’t have lots of ten- or 20-part runs. You make the money go further by having lots of different dramas. But we are at a tipping point.”
Stephenson’s remarks come in the same week that Prime Minister David Cameron has appointed John Whittingdale as the new culture secretary – a move with potentially damaging ramifications for the BBC as it seeks to have its charter renewed next year.
Whittingdale, who will have a key say in determining the level of the new licence fee in 2016, was one of the prime architects of a damning parliamentary select committee report in February that cast doubt on the future of the levy.
In a separate speech, the MP – who chaired the culture, media and sport select committee before his promotion to the cabinet – described the licence fee as less fair than the poll tax and said that the levy was unsustainable in the long term.
In his Radio Times interview, Stephenson adds that the BBC’s funding cuts have required some tough choices. He says he needed to free up money to make more dramas, which is why he was forced to axe Ripper Street, the popular Matthew Macfadyen drama that was picked up by Amazon Prime following an outcry from fans.
However, he said that there were also creative reasons for not commissioning long runs of shows.
“If we did 13 episodes of Sherlock a year, it would swallow most of our budget and it would be worse at 13 episodes. And Benedict Cumberbatch wouldn’t do it. We wouldn’t do it. It isn’t what Britain is. We will do Sherlock as long as the talent want to do it. It’s such a compliment that Benedict and Martin Freeman want to do it. They don’t need to do it. They love the roles.”
Read the full interview with Ben Stephenson in this week’s Radio Times, in shops on Tuesday 12th May or from the digital newsstand