This is a somewhat UK-centred question.

For as long as I can remember, UK governments have placed increasingly tough demands on the BBC. For example, they must ensure that the people on screen and radio are representative in a demographic sense of the consumers they serve, and recently they had to publish details of how much they pay their "talent" and so forth.

I don't have a problem with these requirements. But I do have a problem that they are demanded of the BBC and not other broadcasters who operate in the UK.

I've only heard the glib justification that it's because of "the unique way the BBC is funded". But actually, I don't think the BBC's funding gives it any privilege over commercial broadcasters.

Sure, the simple act of owning a TV means I must pay a "tax" that funds the BBC. But let's be clear, the simple act of purchasing food/heat/light and other essentials means I am funding commercial broadcasters, because it would be practically impossible to buy most of life's necessities without purchasing things whose price includes the cost of advertising on commercial broadcasters.

I can choose which advertised items I buy, but I would argue that I cannot reasonably choose to buy no advertised items. The numbers are hidden from us, but I would expect most annual shopping bills include an advertising cost that's larger than the BBC license fee. I don't have a problem with this, but I'm trying to make the case that UK consumers fund commercial broadcasters just as certainly as we fund the BBC. So why are strict rules applied to the BBC's conduct when those same rules don't apply to its commercial competitors?

Of course I know there are strict rules applied to all broadcasters in the UK, but the BBC has been made a special case, and that seems wrong to me.

I understand why many politicians do not like the BBC, and of course I understand why the commercial press would argue that the BBC is "different". But, behind all the politics, is there any actual justification?

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    I don't think the BBC's funding gives it any privilege over commercial broadcasters. ???? Demands and requirements are not the same than privileges, they are just the opposite. Private broadcasters have a wide freedom to do what they want with their airtime, the BBC is more tightly restricted. The wording of the whole premise seems wrong.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 14:15
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    @user4012 I can't comment about the USA, having only visited 7 times. But in the UK every major grocery retailer advertises on TV, and most products sold in those retailers are also advertised on TV. Of course a determined consumer could avoid them all, but you would have to work very hard to achieve it.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 15:21
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    @user4012 - You've never seen an ad for a superstore or a store brand product on US TV? Perhaps you are just more selective in what you watch, but there are certainly plenty of advertisements in those categories, so even if they aren't reaching you, specifically, they are still advertising and needing to recoup those costs. Perhaps I'm thinking of something different than what you mean when you say "superstore" and "store brand product." Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 16:13
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    @Steve Melnikoff - that's true but doesn't alter the fact that the retail price of those advertised products/services includes a portion which pays for TV/radio advertising.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 16:49
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    I don't mean to justify or reject any regulations - just asking if there's a good reason why different regulations should apply to the BBC than commercial broadcasters, when the UK consumer funds both. If we think certain regulations are good for the BBC, why are they not good for commercial broadcasters, and vice versa? So, it would be for the people who impose regulations on the BBC to explain to you why those regulations should/should not apply to commercial broadcasters.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 11:31

3 Answers 3


Government-sponsored programs have a mandate to serve the public, at large, and to serve them in a relatively even-handed fashion, because it is the public, at large, in its entirety, that are paying the taxes that fund those programs.

There is no such mandate for private, for-profit entities, unless it serves to maximize profits for the owners.

While some may disagree whether a government-funded program should be in the trenches, side-by-side with private businesses, that's a separate matter from how a government-funded entity runs and the standards that govern their operations.

  • @Martin - I don't disagree (about the degree to which they are using public resources and should be held to higher standards), but the main difference is there isn't a distinct private ownership involved who would possibly try to fight (or purchase politicians to fight) those standards. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 15:37
  • Steve's mentioned Channel 4 in his comment above, which got me thinking... they are self-funding via advertising but they surely also have the same "mandate to serve" that the BBC has?
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 16:48
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    @Martin - Even self-funding, if they are not privately owned, they still ultimately are "owned" by the taxpayers, and serve in their interests. Just like a for-profit TV network in the USA is sensitive to their advertisers, as a source of revenue, they ultimately are driven by service to ownership, and the ownership ultimately decides how much they want to cater to their advertisers. In this case, they are sensitive to the revenue stream, but only to the degree that it serves their ownership, the public. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 17:21

In a capitalistic society, the default happens to be the market. Companies can offer products and customers are free to buy them or decide not to buy them.

Sometimes a government makes a decision that the private market doesn't provide a certain good that it considers to be important. The government thinks that a certain quality of broadcasting won't be provided by a company that's subject to market pressures and therefore grants the BBC the right to force customers to buy it's programming.

The fact that the government gives the BBC that privilege also the role to actually setting the standards of what it means to do broadcasting in the public interest.

Additionally the rule about representativeness is about making sure that everybody who pays actually gets programming they want. If a company wants to reach my with advertising and I don't watch TV, they might run a Facebook ad instead of buying the TV ad. Advertising encourages broadcasters to actually provide the audience that's that's supposed to be reached. On the other hand, without the rule of having to provide represenative programming the BBC executives could just focus on providing programming they personally like while ignoring the wants of the audience.

  • Thanks for your answer. When you say "customers are free to buy them or decide not to buy them" I think my point was, when it comes to commercial broadcasters in the UK, we consumers have in all practical terms lost that ability. I don't object to any of the rules the BBC is subject to, but think it's not right that other broadcasters don't have to follow the same rules.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 18:44
  • The fact that you feel you have to buy food at a market doesn't mean that it isn't a free market and should be considered an unfree market you still have the choice between multiple products with different characteristics and prices. If you don't like a certain broadcasters you can run a boycott against the companies that spend the most money on the broadcaster.
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 11:12
  • I'm not talking about punishing broadcasters I don't like. I'm just asking if there's any real justification for imposing more rules on the BBC than commercial broadcasters, when in practical terms we have little choice but to fund them all. If the rules are good for the BBC they'd also be good for other broadcasters. Plus it would actually shine a brighter light on them all; for example the BBC's disclosure of what they pay their talent would actually be more informative if we could compare it against what other broadcasters pay.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 11:20
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    If nobody would watch a given commercial broadcaster advertisers wouldn't pay money for it. Advertisers pay for viewership. Not watching a broadcaster is a good way to boycott it. Additionally, it's also possible to start public campaigns against companies for running their ads with certain broadcasters. The fact that you want to go to the length of boycott is your personal choice. It doesn't mean that the market doesn't allow you to do so.
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 13:26
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    Because the rule that you have to pay the BBC if you have a TV isn't a result of the market but a result of a government mandate.
    – Christian
    Commented Nov 30, 2017 at 13:56

Avoiding advertising

I can choose which advertised items I buy, but I would argue that I cannot reasonably choose to buy no advertised items.

Really? Who advertised your home on television? I've seen homes advertised in local newspapers but not broadcast on television. And it's not that hard to buy a home without even newspaper advertising. The primary channel for home sales is the realtor network. Your realtor works with other realtors to connect you to sellers.

Who advertises the local utilities on television? If they are monopolies, probably no one. You get who you get. They don't advertise because they don't compete. And if your utilities do advertise, you can switch to local alternatives like wood stoves and fireplaces.

If you buy your meat and produce from local farmers, who advertised them?

So there's your basic needs: shelter, heat, water, and food. No television advertising.

Choosing your advertising

More importantly, if you buy an advertised item, you may be indirectly supporting some broadcaster. But you aren't supporting all broadcasters who sell advertising. You're just supporting the particular broadcaster who advertised that product. You can refuse to support the broadcaster via a boycott of the advertised goods. Try that with the government:

I am writing you today to tell you that until you stop showing that unbalanced filth on your station, I will no longer be paying taxes.

It won't end well. They will go and levy the money from your bank account. The courts will eventually support them in this, as you aren't claiming that you don't owe the taxes.

If you do the same thing to a broadcaster, or to one or more of their advertisers, you won't go to court. You won't have to pay them the money. You'll just lose access to their goods. And you'll have sent your message.

Beyond all that, the government can impose restrictions on its parts because it is the one paying the money. The government is not paying the private broadcasters money. So you can't just vote in changes. You have to go through the extra work of the boycott. That is both freeing (in the sense that different broadcasters can cater to different parts of the population) and more difficult (because you have to do this in addition to voting for a government).


There is also the problem of monoculture. If every broadcaster has to follow the government's rules, then every broadcaster will be rather similar. As is, broadcasters can choose their niche. One broadcaster can chase the older market. Another broadcaster can chase the young adult market.

Perhaps you like the current set of government rules. But would you have liked the previous set? And will you like the next set? One of the problems with government action is that majority rules. But what if you aren't in the majority? Consider the following (from a United States perspective):

  1. Same sex couples didn't appear on television until recently.
  2. Indications of cunnilingus have traditionally been avoided more than indications of fellatio.
  3. Female nudity has been avoided more than male nudity. In particular, a bare-chested man can be depicted but a bare-chested woman cannot.
  4. Violence can be shown so long as its consequences, blood and gore, are not.

Ignoring whether these are some or all justified. What would happen if your choices were reversed? I.e. go down that list and pick how you think that they should appear. Now realize that a government may pick all the opposite positions to take. If they set those rules not just for things subsidized by government funds but for everyone.

Even just in the last nine years positions have shifted. In 2008, Barack Obama ran against same sex marriage (he was for a civil unions alternative). In 2016, that was considered a hopelessly reactionary stance. Donald Trump was pilloried not for holding it but for knowing people who did (e.g. Mike Pence). They're different opinions. Which should have been mandated? Why can't one broadcaster lead opinion on that while another trails?

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    You seem to have misread my statement "I cannot reasonably choose to buy no advertised items" as "nothing I buy has not been advertised". I did not, and would not, make that claim.
    – Martin
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 18:41
  • Who advertises the local utilities on television? If they are monopolies, probably no one. I don't know if that's actually the case in the UK. Here on Europe's mainland many utilities do compete (as virtual providers, e.g. ISPs, but also electric companies), even if they share the same supply network (in particular there's one power network and all the electric companies use that to distribute 'their' power).
    – JJJ
    Commented Apr 9, 2019 at 14:34

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