As Scots prepare to vote in the independence referendum on Sept. 18, and an independent Scotland looks increasingly possible, people in the TV business are asking: If Scotland votes yes, what happens to one of the U.K.’s most globally revered institutions, the BBC?
“If there is a yes vote the BBC won’t work anymore,” said Glasgow-based producer John Archer, whose company Hopscotch Films made the Peabody Award-winning series “The Story of Film.” He adds that after the question of what happens with the currency, the BBC is the biggest issue facing a yes vote.
“No one has got an answer to how it would operate if Scots vote for independence,” he said. “I’d be happy to pay a subscription to watch BBC channels but that in itself would open up a massive can of worms.”
The former BBC director general John Birt warned last month that a yes vote would lead to more financial hardship for the pubcaster, which is reeling still from economies introduced by U.K. pols four years ago.
“If Scotland votes for independence the BBC, like other national institutions, would lose 10% of its income,” wrote Birt in British newspaper the Guardian. “The recent new obligations placed on the BBC – to fund World Service, S4C and other activities from the licence fee – will in short order take a further 15% out of the pot used for funding television, radio and online services.
“So in the space of just a few years, if Scotland became independent the BBC as we know it would effectively lose a quarter of its funding. Fundamental changes to BBC services would be unavoidable.”
In polls at least 60% of Scots say they want to keep the BBC, possibly oblivious to the fact that the U.K. government insists a yes vote means Scotland loses the Beeb.
Speaking Sept. 9 to the Royal Television Society in London U.K. media minister Sajid Javid stressed again that a free-standing Scotland would forfeit the world’s best known pubcaster.
“If you decide to leave the U.K., you leave U.K. institutions behind – one of them is the BBC,” he said.
Of course, if Scotland votes to go it alone there will be various options open to the BBC over how to make its shows available north of the border.
Should the split with U.K. occur, the Nationalist’s plan is to set up a new Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS) financed by the money Scots pay in licence fees for the BBC – some £320 million ($517 million).
But it seems unlikely this new entity would have enough coin to buy popular BBC shows since Scottish BBC audiences are effectively subsidized by their English counterparts.
“SBS wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for the BBC programs,” reckoned Archer.
A possibility is that a commercial Scottish broadcaster like STV might be prepared to buy some of the BBC’s biggest hits such as “Strictly Come Dancing,” “Doctor Who” or the long-running soap “EastEnders.”
Archer will be voting no, but a lot of younger staff in his office intend to support the nationalists.
The vote looks excruciatingly close. This is why London-based politicians from the big parties are finally love-bombing the Scots to persuade them to stay in the union.
For Lord Reith’s sake, the Scottish visionary who founded the BBC in 1922, let’s hope they succeed.
If not prepare for the biggest and most profound shake-up in the Corporation’s history.