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May 3, 2022, 12:03 p.m.

The BBC commissions a study to show what life without the BBC would be like

After just nine days of living without any BBC services, 70% of the households hostile to paying the full license fee had changed their minds. “I was quite surprised at how much I missed it.”

The BBC has a message for those looking to scrap the license fee the public broadcaster relies on: You’d miss us if we went away.

To prove its point, the BBC hired the research company MTM to deprive 80 U.K. households of any BBC content for nine days, including two weekends. That meant abstaining not just from BBC news broadcasts on television and radio, but forecasts from BBC Weather, reality shows like Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC’s content for kids, dramas like Line of Duty, recipes from BBC Food, podcasts like You’re Dead to Me, the BBC News Twitter feed, episodes of Doctor Who on other platforms, random clips of The Graham Norton Show on Instagram, etc.

At the end of the nine days — after initial interviews, keeping media diaries, and giving real-time updates to researchers via WhatsApp — households were instructed to open an envelope during a final interview. Inside was the prorated cost of the license fee for the nine days, which worked out to a little less than £4 (USD $5). Was it worth it?

MTM had assembled 80 households in the U.K. for the study: 30 that said they’d prefer to pay nothing and not get the BBC, 30 that wanted to pay less than the full license fee, and a control group of 20 willing to pay the full license fee. Participants received “No BBC” stickers to put on their TVs, car radios, phones, and other devices and self-reported their media consumption. Out of the 60 households that wanted to pay nothing or pay less, 70% changed their minds and became willing to pay the full license fee or more. Of the 20 in the control group, 19 were still willing to pay the full fee after nine days without the BBC.

The study was designed around the idea that the BBC is taken for granted by many living in the U.K. and that people tend to underestimate how much the BBC is part of their daily routines. From the final report:

“Because of the longstanding nature and high usage of the BBC — used by 90% of UK adults per week and for [approximately] 18 hours weekly per adult on average — it can be difficult for people to assess its role, and the majority of people have never experienced UK life without it. By removing it for the research, it helps people gauge the impact, if any, on their daily lives, and if there is any gap between what they think they get from the BBC and what they actually experience.”

MTM, whose Twitter bio says the agency “blend[s] research and strategy consultancy,” carried out a similar survey, with similar results, in 2015. Participants gave many of the same reasons for changing their minds about the license fee in 2022 as they did in 2015. After going without the BBC for a little more than a week, households said they realized they’d underestimated their BBC consumption, better understood where the license fee goes, more fully appreciated that the BBC is both ad-free and high-quality compared to the alternatives, and found BBC was the source they wanted to turn to, especially for major news events.

The 2015 study prompted the BBC to focus on providing “value to all” and address some of the most common misunderstandings. For example: the BBC has “taken steps with our branding and syndication strategy to ensure more audiences credit the BBC when they consume our content,” a spokesperson said. The BBC has also re-committed to commissioning content that “stand[s] out,” the spokesperson added, to help demonstrate that the corporation “provides something unique in the market.”

The political battle over funding the BBC has only become more pitched in the seven years since the first study was released. Negotiations with the government have forced the corporation to cut costs by as much as 1 billion pounds a year and officials have warned the BBC that the days are numbered for the annual license fee it relies on.  Overall, the BBC’s budget has fallen by 30% since 2010 and the cutbacks aren’t over. The corporation’s current director general, Tim Davie, is expected to announce more “deep cuts” in coming days as the BBC seeks to make up £285 million to meet a government-imposed budget.

The study found that initial attitudes about the license fee were driven primarily by how satisfied people were with BBC television, and that the households with the lowest awareness of the range of BBC services outside TV — including radio and BBC online — were those most likely to want to do away with the fee.

At the end of the study, one participant who’d been against the license fee said, “I’d only thought about the TV side of BBC initially, but I’ve had to use the Sky News app which I really didn’t like. It doesn’t have the same content and just doesn’t seem to have as much.”

“When you look at it, it offers more than what you think. You tend to just think the BBC channels and a bit of Radio but like … there’s a lot more to it. There’s all your websites, and obviously all the learning stuff for the kids,” said another participant. “And I didn’t realize how much I check on the weather and the news, and when you break it down to £3 it’s not that much really.”

Participants found BBC Food and content for children like CBeebies particularly hard to replace:

“The inability to be able to access the ‘reliable recipes’ was a frequent frustration amongst those who cooked meals for themselves or their families, with alternatives sometimes seen as having unclear measurements, obscure ingredients, or lacking a ‘Britishness’ about them.”

“I know that anything I put on the BBC — all of it would be ok. I could leave it on in the room and it would be fine. I maybe couldn’t do that on YouTube, the internet, Netflix. It’s safe for the kids!”

Those who initially said the service was of little or no value to them were more likely to compare the obligatory charge, unfavorably, to paying for opt-in subscription services like Netflix and Disney+. (In 2019, the number of Netflix subscribers in the U.K. surpassed the number of BBC iPlayer accounts.)

“I just think there are so many other options out there now … it’s really expensive and I don’t think people are using mainstream TV as much now,” a participant from an “older family in Scotland” initially told the researchers.

The same household, after they’d gone without the BBC:

“I didn’t think I would miss the radio or the news as much because it’s there elsewhere, but it just doesn’t come up to scratch. Like [name of local commercial alternative] is my local radio station and I should be listening to that but it’s just absolute garbage. It’s not as independent. It’s not as informative … I was quite surprised at how much I missed it [BBC Radio Scotland] … You’re going to get everything you need from that station.”

A member of another of the households that changed their minds said, in the initial interview, “I only probably watch a handful of shows on the channels so I think it’s an absolute con.”

After nine BBC-less days, they’d changed their tune: “I use it a lot more than I thought I actually would … so I do think what you’re paying is a fair amount compared to the likes of Netflix and your Amazons and everything else like that, so yeah … I’m happy to pay.”

Participants also noticed the many advertisements on other radio and television stations: “I listened to Absolute Radio instead,” one participant said. “The downside was the amount of adverts, every two of three songs you get adverts for things you just don’t want.”

Another participant, from York, said, “I think a platform that isn’t riddled with adverts is a big thing that I’ve missed. I realise not just how irritating they are but how repetitive … An advert-free platform is actually really welcome.”

Not everyone changed their minds, of course. About 30% of the participants still wanted to pay less or pay nothing for the BBC.  One household, a young family that pays for Netflix, Disney+, and Prime, explained, “When put in perspective how much I pay for it, realistically I’m paying £3 a week for EastEnders because everything else can be easily substituted.”

Others took issue with the obligatory nature of the license fee, even if they did use their services. “My views haven’t changed,” a single person in Leicester said in the final interview. “I still don’t like the fact that it’s a given that you have to pay and that everyone has to pay the same set amount regardless if you use BBC content.”

You can view the final report here.

Photo of the good boy waiting by a window by Kelly Sikkema used under an Unsplash license.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (, Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     May 3, 2022, 12:03 p.m.
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