Viewers would lose out if BBC went subscription-only, says Drama Controller

"It would be a massive loss, not to have the kind of breadth of drama that we make," the broadcaster's head of drama commissioning said after reports that the licence fee may be abolished

BBC dramas

The BBC’s Drama Controller Piers Wenger has said scrapping the licence fee and making the BBC subscription-only would “completely” change the breadth of TV shows commissioned – and that this would be “a massive loss” to the viewing public.

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Over the last week, reports have emerged that 10 Downing Street is keen to “prune back” the BBC and scrap the TV licence fee entirely, replacing it with a subscription model.

But at a press event in London, Wenger defended the broadcaster’s place within the TV landscape and wider British society.

Asked how a subscription-only BBC would change the way dramas are commissioned, he said: “It would change it completely. Because we wouldn’t be making – the BBC is a universal service… a massive part of what motivates us is making drama for everyone, for families, for 16-24 year olds, for everyone.

“And if you were a subscription service, you are making for your customers, which wouldn’t be the whole sweep of Britain.”

Piers Wenger
Piers Wenger (Getty)

He added: “It would be a massive loss, not to have the kind of breadth of drama that we make. To be able to serve the whole country, represent the whole country, represent all of the different nations and class diversity, and diversity more widely. All of that would be gone. And that would be a shame.”

The TV executive revealed that drama programmes received over one billion requests on iPlayer in 2019, with numbers of people watching drama on iPlayer growing by 28%. He also emphasised that five of the top ten new dramas across all broadcasters last year came from the BBC, and pointed to impressive viewing figures for shows including His Dark Materials, Line of Duty and Call the Midwife.

“The popularity of BBC Drama speaks for itself – with audiences willing to go on the wildest of adventures provided that stories feel robust emotionally, unexpected and apposite,” Wenger said.

“I am often asked how, in the era of co-production, the BBC can argue that its programmes are unique when so many of them are co-produced. But ideas don’t start off co-produced. Rather, they are born out of numerous creative conversations between writers, producers and commissioning editors, with the aim of making something which is bold, original and unique. That often means going against the market with the ideas you are backing, but it’s a testimony to those grass-roots conversations that once ideas become scripts, there is a feeding frenzy for them internationally.”

Upcoming drama Normal People is co-production between Hulu and the BBC, while His Dark Materials was co-produced with HBO.

His Dark Materials (BBC)
His Dark Materials (BBC)

“We’re very lucky because we co-produce a lot which means we can make the licence fee go a lot further and there’s huge appetite internationally for shows that are developed and grown here,” he added. 

Wenger also insisted that the BBC has a wider contribution to the TV marketplace, nurturing talent and developing ideas in a way that SVODs (“subscription video on demand” services) like Netflix do not.

“Development is time consuming, rooted in trust and financially risky,” he said. “That is why commercial broadcasters and SVODs don’t develop in the same way that we do, but also why that without the BBC, the drama market would be less vigorous. We are the primary incubator of storytelling talent in the UK.

“In a sector which is so heavily commercialised, I truly believe that there is nowhere else in the world where you can be as creatively free as you can be at the BBC.”

Wenger announced four newly-commissioned dramas, telling press: “These four brilliant and varied pieces are written by someone who is new to television writing, and it might sound risky, but backing new talent is normal and natural to us.”

The dramas are titled The Responder, My Name is Leon, Chloe, and Superhoe, and are all written by “new talent”.

It was also announced that the BBC will follow up its adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People with a drama based on the author’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends.

Normal People (BBC)
Normal People (BBC)

Over recent years, the BBC has been faced with ever-increasing competition for scripts and ideas and projects – vying with interest not just from ITV and Channel 4, but also from Netflix, Amazon, Sky and more.

“We don’t get everything that we want,” Wenger admitted. “But what we do, and what we pride ourselves on being, is incredibly quick to respond to material.”

Referencing Michaela Coel’s upcoming drama January 22nd, he continued: “The shows that I’ve said today were born out of early manuscripts – I met Michaela in my first month in the job, and we commissioned her show from that verbal pitch.

“Traditionally perhaps the BBC hasn’t been the quickest to do that, but… we’re not the only game in town any more. And I think we just have really strong instincts about good writing. We feel really aware of what we’re here to do, which is to give a big platform to the voices that aren’t being heard elsewhere. So when a piece of material comes in that does that and that is brilliantly written, then we just move incredibly quickly.

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“And we are fortunate in not having an algorithm that we need to put ideas through, and being able to do that. And I think that is the key difference between the way that we now work and the way the SVODs work.”