When Sir Colin Callender stepped to the mic to accept the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series or TV Movie on behalf of Wolf Hall—a series co-produced by the BBC, PBS, and a handful of other companies, including his own Playground Entertainment—he ended his speech with an impassioned plea to the British prime minister. “Without the BBC, quality programming like this wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I urge David Cameron and the British government to do everything they can’t to protect the BBC and ensure its future.” Is the BBC in peril?
The BBC isn’t going anywhere, but this is a crucial year for the corporation. The BBC operates under a royal charter that is up for renewal every 10 years, and the current agreement expires at the end of 2016. Since the charter defines the conditions under which the BBC operates, renegotiation potentially threatens its independence, funding, and governance. Currently, the corporation’s television, radio, and online output is funded by an annual TV license fee of 145.50 pounds (about $210), which every British household that owns a television must pay. But that could change.
Although the BBC is wildly popular with the British public, media rivals—including television companies and newspapers—complain that its funding model puts them at a commercial disadvantage. Meanwhile, some political groups—especially Cameron’s Conservative Party, which enjoys the support of most British newspaper owners—are said to be resentful of the BBC’s editorial independence. By reducing the income the BBC receives from the public—by freezing or reducing the license fee, introducing a subscription model, or even decriminalizing nonpayment of the license fee (180,000 people were prosecuted for nonpayment in 2012–13)—a new charter could seriously undermine the BBC’s independence. That’d be terrible news for British viewers—and for U.S. fans of remarkable co-productions like Wolf Hall.
Read all Slate’s coverage of the 2016 Oscar season.