Are the BBC Proms licence fee money well spent?

The annual festival of classical music and more costs the BBC £5 million. Is what we get back in return worth it? asks David Crawford

BBC Proms

By David Crawford 

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In the furore over the level of pay awarded to some of the BBC’s top stars, a few other figures that might interest licence payers were overlooked.

Take the BBC Proms, for example. Finding exact numbers in the Corporation’s annual report is a bit tricky, but RadioTimes.com can reveal that annually the Proms season costs £10 million to stage. Around half that is recouped through ticket sales, leaving a £5 million net cost to the licence fee payer.

It was ever thus. When the BBC took over the running of the Proms in 1927, it was because the previous sponsor Chappell & Co felt it could no longer bear the cost at a time when profits were down (which, ironically, was blamed on the new culture of broadcasting inhibiting concert-going). The BBC agreed to take on that first season with a projected loss of £3,100 (around £175,000 in today’s money).

Yet, despite the long relationship between the BBC and the Proms, it could be argued that putting on an eight-week concert season is not a primary concern of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

So should part of the licence fee be subsidising Proms ticket prices, as it has been for 90 years now? 

Let’s break down just how much that subsidy works for the licence fee payer, with some rough calculations worked out on the back of an envelope.

For the financial year 2016/17, the BBC received £3.7 billion in licence fee revenue, with £5 million (or 0.132%) going to cover the cost of the Proms. So each person paying £147 for a colour TV licence contributed 19p to subsidise the season.

That means the 300,000+ people who attended the Proms in 2016 were each able to save around £20 if you compare the price of a ticket in the stalls with what you’d pay at a regular concert at the Albert Hall.

Three hundred thousand is a small percentage of the roughly 25 million people who buy licence fees each year though – so is the majority propping up a niche service for a niche audience?

The BBC’s mission is to educate, inform and entertain; the Proms does all three of these things and reaches audiences through live performance, radio, TV and online,” argues Proms director David Pickard. “The founders of the Proms wanted to offer the best classical music to the widest possible audience and that remains our vision today[…] It is hugely important to us that Proms are accessible to all audiences and ticket prices [subsidised by the licence fee] are a key part of that.”

The figures bear him out. In 2016 over 35,500 bought tickets for the first time, more than 10,000 under 18s attended concerts, and a record 57,000 tickets were sold in the first hour of booking. Meanwhile, all Proms concerts are broadcast live on Radio 3, with a large proportion being shown on TV. In fact, the UK total TV reach for the 2016 season was around 16.1 million.

So, the numbers stack up but what are we actually paying for?

There was an astonishing breadth of music and performances this year and it’s hard to pick out a concise list of highlights. But to contrast Simon Rattle leading the London Symphony Orchestra through Schoenberg’s mighty Gurrelieder with Booker T playing his famous hit Green Onions to a grooving Albert Hall audience gives some idea of the Proms’ broad appeal.

Throw in concerts at a Peckham multi-storey car park and Handel’s Water Music performed at the dock in Hull and it’s easy to argue that the Proms today is continuing the noble ambition of its famous co-founder Sir Henry Wood to make the festival accessible to all.

And now, beyond that, there’s the annual initiative Ten Pieces that encourages children to engage with classical music, as well as a whole series of talks and workshops relating to individual concerts.

The Proms really do educate, inform and educate — and at incredibly good value for money. It’s all rather inspirational, as Pickard can attest:

“I remember very clearly coming to a Prom when I was in my teens; it was Clifford Curzon playing Mozart’s last piano concerto and I was Promming in the arena. I was overwhelmed by how beautiful his playing was, the atmosphere in the hall, and sharing the experience with 6,000 other people.”

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That’s the value of the Proms in a nutshell, and if even a fraction of the 35,500 newcomers in 2016 had a similar experience, then that’s one part of the licence fee well spent.