Jayne Dowle: My son’s bottle craze shows need for BBC licence rethink

Jeremy Paxman says the BBC licence fee is an absurd mechanism that has no place in our modern viewing habits. (PA).
Jeremy Paxman says the BBC licence fee is an absurd mechanism that has no place in our modern viewing habits. (PA).
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I’m sitting here writing this and all I can hear is a persistent thud. In the bedroom above, my 14-year-old son is flipping a bottle. A simple act, you might think. Not when it goes on every day, anywhere, and is accompanied by yelps of excitement and groans of dismay. And not when you live in a house without carpets. Imagine a constant hammer drill in your head, but more annoying.

Those of you who complain that children don’t make their own entertainment any more should be careful what you wish for. Above my head is the proof. The idea – I’m told – is to fill a plastic bottle and attempt to perform the best “flip” – to turn it over on itself so it stands up. When you get really good at it, you have to film yourself on a mobile phone and upload it to YouTube or Facebook. When your mother gets really mad that you’re doing it with the last bottle of tonic water in the house and the sun is over the yard arm, you had better get running.

I can’t for a moment imagine Jeremy Paxman, elder statesman of broadcasting, indulging himself with a half-full bottle of Malvern Spring. However, he would certainly understand how the craze has taken off. He’s complaining that the BBC licence fee is an “absurd mechanism” that has no place in our modern viewing habits. It might seem a long way from a bottle of pop to the higher echelons of the BBC, but he makes a very good point.

Both my children – Jack’s sister is 11 – barely bother with what we might call “conventional” television. Apart from occasionally watching Coronation Street, they take most of their entertainment from YouTube. The idea of paying a licence fee is beyond their comprehension. The concept of being beholden to a single channel when they have the multi-media world at their fingertips doesn’t even register.

When we upgraded our Sky subscription, we set things up so we can receive the internet on our television screens. Frankly, I don’t actually know how this works, but my daughter certainly does. The first thing she did was to adjust the set in the living room so she could catch up with her favourite YouTubers. That’s a word, by the way.

These anonymous stars of the internet have more influence over our sons and daughters than any “celebrity” we might be familiar with. When Jack talks about “Jake” or “Danny”, he’s not mentioning a friend at school or football, he’s referring to some 17-year-old broadcasting on YouTube from his bedroom.

These YouTube stars speak directly to our children, in all senses of the word. Whether their passion is sport, music, hair-cuts or indeed, bottle-flipping, they are literally on the same wavelength. Their popularity and currency is not measured in how many thousands of pounds a year the BBC might be happy to pay them, but in “hits” and “followers”. And for the really popular ones, with followings in the global millions, they are raking in cash from companies advertising on their posts and product endorsements.

The point is, young people have total control over whom they choose to engage with like this. The idea of having to pay a licence fee set by a television channel they barely even notice is entirely alien. It underlines the argument supported by Paxman: that the current system of funding the way we watch anything must be addressed.

The bottle-flipping craze illustrates this perfectly. It started in May, when a clip of Michael Senatore, an 18-year-old high school student from North Carolina, completing the ‘Water Bottle Challenge’ at a school talent show gathered millions of views online, setting the whole thing in global motion.

So persistent, and darned disruptive, is the craze that a school in Sittingbourne, Kent, has banned youngsters from taking bottles into class, with the head-teacher muttering darkly about, “all the intended and unintended consequences this produces”. As if we don’t have enough problems with discipline and concentration. Our Jack has been obsessed with it for months now, and it shows no sign of abating. It’s more pervasive than Pokemon, and he doesn’t even have to leave the house.

I came home from town the other day and found a ladder propped up against the wall. Sheer panic ran through my veins. Burglars? No, I’d left Jack and his friend home alone. In their teenage wisdom, they had taken it into their heads to climb onto his sister’s bedroom window sill in order to further “challenge” their bottle-flipping skills. I cannot imagine what our neighbours must have thought to two teenage boys on a window sill filming each other on phones whilst chucking bottles of orange squash into the back garden.

There on Jack’s desk sits the latest FIFA 17 football game for the Playstation, bought after I caved in, in a weak moment. I swear I could have saved the best part of 50 quid and bought him six bottles of water from the pound shop instead. Paying the BBC licence fee? Don’t even ask.