What could be more British than the BBC? Along with the NHS (National Health Service), the Royal Family and fish and chips, it is a national institution known the world over – and one of which the British public is justifiably proud.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, also known as ‘the Beeb’, is the world’s oldest and largest public service broadcaster. Headquartered at Broadcasting House in London, it provides ten national TV channels, regional TV programmes, an internet TV service, ten national radio stations, forty local radio stations and a website providing news and information.

In addition, BBC World Service broadcasts news to the world on radio, TV and online in forty languages. It also has a number of commercial ventures related to production and distribution, post-production, training programmes and overseas news services.

The British Broadcasting Company was established almost a century ago, in 1922. At the time, its founder, John Reith, suggested that King George V make a public broadcast via the new ‘wireless’ service. The King considered radio to be a medium for entertainment and declined. Ten years later, he changed his mind and read the first Royal Christmas Message, inaugurating the Empire Service (now the World Service). It has since become an essential part of Christmas Day festivities for Britons across the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth II shared her first message in 1952 and has never missed a broadcast.

ROYAL mandate

In 1927, the BBC changed from a company to a corporation, regulated by Royal Charter. A Royal Charter is a document signed by the king or queen, which gives special rights to an organisation which works in the public interest. The BBC’s charter sets out how it will be governed and states its purpose and mission.

The first charter, which ran for ten years, recognised the BBC as an “instrument of education and entertainment”. Over the years, subsequent charters have made changes to its remit. The ninth and most recent charter in 2017 updated the BBC’s mission: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.”


As a public broadcaster, the BBC is mainly financed by licence fees. Every UK household which has a television must pay an annual fee of £157.50 for a colour TV or £53 for a black-and-white TV. While people over seventy-five years of age currently do not need to pay, that will change in August when most will. Anyone caught watching live TV without a licence can be issued with a fine of up to £1,000.

Excuses not to pay can get very creative. Real examples include “I only use my TV as a lamp” and “Why would I need a TV licence for a TV I stole? No one knows I have it.” The evasion rate is low, however, estimated around 6 per cent – perhaps because, for years, TV detector vans have been rumoured to roam the streets, picking up which households have television sets. It is still not clear if they exist or are merely a ruse.

The BBC collects around £3.8 billion a year in licensing fees, nearly all of which is spent on TV, radio and online content. This means that it does not rely on advertising and does not need to worry too much about ratings. The happy consequence is balanced programming, covering a wide range of topics according to its mission (to inform, educate and entertain) – a far cry from the back-to-back reality shows of commercial channels with advertisements every fifteen minutes.

popular support

Nevertheless, the BBC does rely on public support in order to maintain the TV licence fees. There have been discussions to move it to a Netflix-style subscription model when the charter is up for renewal in 2027.

The question is whether it can compete against big players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Perhaps the BBC will find a way to extend the service – and the licence fees – to viewers worldwide, as a way of safeguarding its future as a public yet independent broadcaster.