What do you watch? And how do you pay for it? Back when I was born in the UK, there was just one television channel, the BBC. Television ownership was then far from universal, though the Queen’s Coronation on June 2nd 1953 had spurred the demand for televisions. The BBC was financed (and still is) by a licence fee, payable by everyone who owned a TV (or radio in those days), rather than by advertising. This gives it the freedom to carry content that doesn’t necessarily command a mass audience but serves subsets of the population. The counter argument would be that the freedom from commercial imperatives leads to content which doesn’t match the desires of those who have no choice but to pay for it.
The endless BBC-knocking stories in the right-wing UK press invariably draw comments on the theme of ‘The BBC should be cut loose and made to finance itself’. Let me just note that according to BARB research, the BBC channels are the most watched (51:29 per day avg, 14-20 Sep 2020), well ahead of ITV (37.58), Sky (17:32), C4 (17:02) and C5 (11:59). A couple of decades ago, ITV had more viewers than BBC so who is failing the audience? If the BBC lost its licence fee and was made to take advertising, the other commercial channels would no doubt take a massive hit.
But all these channels are now up against other competition, Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime etc. Most are subscription services. YouTube gives viewers the option for ad-free content, but do many people pay for this? In its early days it seemed to be a home for what were once dismissively called ‘home movies’ but no more. The production values of most YouTube content are as good as anything on mainline TV.
What’s really interesting is that YouTube has evolved to be a money-making platform for content creators. In most cases it’s a case of attracting eyeballs and getting a cut of the associated advertising income, but what I find interesting are the ones that ask for money. The users pay, not because they have to, not because they are going to receive anything in return (perhaps a mention in the credits or a preview), but just out of a desire to reward the producers of what they’ve enjoyed and to encourage them to do more. The patronage of past times, where the wealthy supported causes close to their hearts has been democratised. According to its website, Patreon now currently supports more than 100,000 creators, who receive recurring donations from over 3 million supporters. Some are earning six-digit sums each year. Few manage this of course, but in principle anyone could! All made possible by technology. Lest you wonder I’m not planning to become a YouTuber. But here are three of my favourite YouTube channels: