If private ITV can make 'Downton Abbey,' do we need a BBC?

Britain's period costume hit, 'Downton Abbey,' challenges BBC's monopoly on the genre.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
BBC employees join a strike outside the organization's television center in west London, Nov. 5. A two-day journalists' strike over pension benefits forced the BBC Friday to cancel a number of its radio and television news broadcasts. Meanwhile, private ITV is challenging the BBC's turf with a popular costume drama.

The BBC has long justified its existence by pointing to the fact that it airs programmes that appeal to a range of audiences – providing “public value” with didactic, highbrow broadcasting that would not arise naturally on the market. Once again, this claim can be shown to be unsubstantiated by the facts. This autumn, TV critics and audiences alike have focused around ITV, with the channel moving away from its traditional image of gritty soap operas and cheap entertainment.

Many people’s weekends now revolve around the X-Factor on Saturday and Sunday night, followed by the highly-praised period drama Downton Abbey. Though the X-Factor may not be to everyone taste, it is a huge success drawing in the audiences for the seventh year running – whatever its artistic merit, people enjoy it. However, it is the airing of Downton Abbey that underline’s the potential for ITV’s output. The Edwardian costume drama has truly challenged the BBC’s supposed monopoly on this genre. It has shown the depth and diversity that private broadcasters can achieve and makes one wonder why we need a public broadcaster.

The unique thing about the revival of ITV is that they operate on a much tighter programme budget compared to the government-funded BBC. With only £1 billion a year, which has remained static for several years, ITV have shown that well-invested and well-written dramas can compete with the BBC and all other channels out there. On the other hand, the BBC, which receives around £3.6 billion of taxpayers money through the tax known as the ‘licence fee’, has brought little new to the schedule that has truly captured the viewing public.

This highlights the question of whether public funding is justifiable at all. If private television companies are producing some of the best and most-watched television whilst competing with a government-protected monopoly, how much more could be produced in a genuinely free market without government anti-competition subsidies?

It is time the BBC was disbanded or privatized so it has to compete on a level playing field, not only with ITV but with all the other corporate channels that are now made available to us following the digital switchover. No longer crowded out by the BBC, private channels would soon produce higher rated and higher quality programmes: Downton Abbey is only the tip of the iceberg.

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