BBC Under Fire: Attacks on Funding and Competition From Rivals Could Spell Big Changes

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The BBC Broadcasting house in London.

From its humble origins as a single radio station in the early 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation has become one of the world's most renowned, respected and influential multiplatform media organizations, with its film, TV, radio and online content reaching a weekly global audience of more than 300 million.

Music always has been a constant and key component of the BBC's programming, and nearly every notable British artist of the past 75 years -- from Vera Lynn to The Beatles, The Fall to Adele -- gained vital early exposure from the publicly funded broadcaster. However, with the future of the BBC increasingly under threat from commercial rivals and a newly elected government intent on reducing its size, there is a good chance that the next generation of British artists will not receive the same support.

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Attacks on the BBC by politicians and rival broadcasters stem from the unique way that it is funded: Every TV owner in the United Kingdom is legally required to purchase an annual license costing £145.50 ($220). Failure to do so is punishable by fines and the possibility of a prison sentence; the BBC's license fee income totals £3.7 billion ($5.7 billion) per year. Critics say this gives the BBC an unfair and revenue-stifling advantage over commercial competitors. The debate has prompted newly installed culture secretary John Whittingdale to launch a "widespread and fundamental" review into the size of the BBC and its output, which began in July.

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Conservative member of parliament John Whittingdale arrives for a meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on May 11, 2015. 

At the same time, the broadcaster finds itself financially squeezed by ongoing cost-cutting measures, as well as its latest funding deal, which will have the corporation absorbing the £750 million ($1.1 billion) cost of TV licenses for viewers ages 75 and older. Other budget and staff cuts will inevitably follow, with the United Kingdom's two most popular radio stations, top 40 network Radio 1 and the adult-contemporary-formatted Radio 2 (representing a combined weekly audience of around 25 million listeners), among the services that Whittingdale has identified for inspection.

"We're not afraid of being challenged to demonstrate our value to audiences," responds Bob Shennan, director of BBC Music. He cites the diverse range of music that the BBC promotes -- spanning from classical, jazz and opera on Radio 3 to urban, hip-hop and grime on 1Xtra, and everything in between -- as delivering a "very distinctive complement" to commercial stations such as pop network Capital FM and classic hits station Absolute. The BBC's comprehensive TV coverage of music events including the Glastonbury Festival in June, which totaled more than 50 hours, and dedicated live-performance shows like Later... With Jools Holland offer further opportunities to both new and established artists. "Without a healthy, thriving and distinctive BBC," says Shennan, "the whole U.K. music ecology is likely to be diminished."

His views are echoed by the wider industry, with umbrella organization UK Music coordinating a campaign in support of the BBC, backed by an online petition. "If you look at British artists through the decades, the common denominator throughout all of them is that they started their careers on the BBC," says Bruno Morelli, Virgin/EMI director of promotions.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.