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May 27, 2008

Advertising on the BBC

As anyone who has spent any time in the UK will know, the BBC is a safe haven from that most grubby of industries, advertising. It's enshrined in the BBC's charter. But the BBC's ban on advertising only applies to the UK (where anyone who owns a TV has to pay a $300 licence fee every year, which funds the BBC). Here in the US, the BBC is free to licence its programmes to commercial stations, and also runs BBC America, which carries ads.

But now, following a recent site redesign, some pretty substantial ads can be seen on the BBC homepage itself - at least, if you're outside the UK:

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The BBC is within its rights to do this, of course, but it does raise some interesting questions. The content on the BBC website is created using licence fee payers' money, a distortion of the UK news website market which has been controversial for as long as the site's existed (the excellent BBC News site competes with the likes of the Guardian, Times, Independent and so on in the UK).

With the traditional newspaper publishers (and commercial TV stations, to a lesser extent) starting to really feel the pinch of the Internet (with advertising budgets fleeing to Google and other places), sites like The Guardian's are making efforts to expand overseas in an attempt to tap into the US advertising market. So the BBC's entry into these markets has not been greeted with much enthusiasm.

As a Brit, I have a huge soft spot for the BBC; the licence fee has subsidized some great TV that wouldn't have otherwise been made; but I wonder how long its its funding mechanism can continue, as TV and online increasingly merge together, and national boundaries for content consumption are blurred. At the very least, it seems hypocritical to me that I am subsidizing the BBC through being served ads on the one hand, yet unable to watch any of the video content delivered through the iPlayer (the BBC's catch-up service) on the other, because I'm outside the UK.

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