Dilemma over free TV licences for over-75s as broadcasters face up to their responsibilities – David Behrens

Channel 4's current headquarters on Horseferry Road, London.
Channel 4's current headquarters on Horseferry Road, London.
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WHO’D want to work in TV? Almost no one, apparently, if it involves the prospect of moving to Yorkshire.

Channel 4’s revelation that some 90 per cent of its outgoing London workforce would rather be made redundant than move to its new regional headquarters in Leeds speaks volumes about the metropolitan centre of gravity in what is still our most pervasive mass medium.

The BBC is under fire for its decision to scrap free TV licences for most OAPs aged over 75.

The BBC is under fire for its decision to scrap free TV licences for most OAPs aged over 75.

It is hardly a surprise. The same thing happened when the BBC moved entire departments to Manchester in the 1990s and to nearby Salford more recently.

Another TV repeat, then.

Channel 4 had moved heaven 
and earth not to up sticks at all, but its hand was forced by the Government. Putting on a brave face, it invited interested cities to shower it with incentives that would gain its patronage. Leeds offered the best package, but it might not have won the glittering prize it expected.

The most worrying aspect of this week’s news was the inescapable conclusion that the channel’s 500 remaining London staff will hold sway over the Northern contingent, which will be half the size and bereft of senior executives. Will the Yorkshire outpost be taken seriously, or will it be seen as a posting to Siberia?

TV was not always this way. Leeds used to be a centre of network production, in which dramas, sitcoms and documentaries were routinely turned out. It was one of a handful of ITV studio bases around the country, each with its own specialisms and regional flavour. That was the model we threw out in the 1990s, and the latest instalment last week of Granada’s Up series, which has followed the lives of the same people every seven years since 1964, was a reminder if one were needed of what we lost. Ambition on that scale is simply impossible in today’s world of transient, freelance contracts and programming by committee.

Channel 4’s annual report contained another telling statistic: it was losing viewers among its young, core audience – whom it says it will try to win back by putting programmes for them on social media sites like Snapchat and Instagram.

Young viewers are the holy grail of all the networks, and the decision by the BBC earlier in the week to means-test the licence fee for everyone over 75 illustrates the extent to which those in other demographics are being marginalised.

The corporation had been due to take on the financial burden from the Government of issuing free licences for the sector of society most dependent on having a TV set. But it has decided instead to give them only to households in receipt of pension credit.

The director general suggested that cutting services was the only alternative, and, frankly, it would have been a better one. The BBC, for all its excellences, is one of the most profligate and bureaucratic organisations in Britain, and it is now punishing those who have paid for it the longest.

It is in its craven nature to climb down, especially in the face of the universal opprobrium that has been heaped on it. I think that will happen. If it doesn’t, the decision will have become academic within a decade because the licence fee itself will not survive it.

It costs £154.50 for a colour licence, and the fact that there remains a black-and-white one points to the archaic nature of the system. It’s an overwhelming sum for many in their 70s and 80s reliant only on a pension. The rest of us, as we approach those years, will have become used to paying piecemeal, for services like Netflix and Sky. The willingness to bulk buy BBC services we don’t watch will have evaporated.

Those younger still won’t need a licence anyway because, as Channel 4 has said, programmes will be 
delivered through other devices instead: phones, computers, anything except a TV.

Both it and the corporation are publicly owned, and with ownership comes responsibility. The BBC will have passed its own, slow death sentence if it doesn’t change its mind about writing off its most loyal audience. And Channel 4 will lose face if it cannot demonstrate that its Yorkshire staff are not just paying lip service to people in London who didn’t want to leave.

It’s not a very appealing picture, is it?