Polling and the BBC License Fee

What do British people believe should happen with this charge?

A Telegraph article asserts in its headline:

Almost two thirds of Britons want BBC licence fee scrapped

The article in The Sun claims:

one in six say they never watch the Beeb despite being made to pay for it

This post looks at the results of the Savanta ComRes poll, and other polling on this topic.

What the Savanta ComRes poll said

Savanta ComRes conducted an online poll of 2,274 UK adults, between 16th and 19th October. ‘Defund the BBC’ sponsored the poll. For its weights, Savanta ComRes use age, gender, region, and social grade (among others).

Surveys provide estimates, subject to many sources of potential error. There is a range around each estimate: it could be somewhat higher of lower.

The first question was:

Which of the following statements best reflects your view on the TV Licence Fee?

  • The TV Licence Fee should continue as it currently is;
  • The TV Licence Fee should not continue as it currently is;
  • Don’t Know.

In the sample, 32% clicked it should, and 59% selected that it should not. The response options do not talk about scrapping the license fee. It is a consideration of the status quo.

This is a balanced question. The Telegraph article does not give an accurate description. A better wording for the estimate would be ‘around six in ten’, rather than ‘almost two thirds’.

There was also a question about on when people should pay for a TV license.

For each of the following scenarios, do you believe that the person should or should not have to pay for a TV Licence?

  • Someone who watches TV as it’s broadcast, including the BBC: 59% said they should (“definitely” or “probably”). 34% said they should not.
  • Someone who watches TV as it’s broadcast, but never the BBC: A plurality of 51% respondents they should not. 40% clicked they should.

The Telegraph article also says:

An even larger proportion — 43 per cent — felt the BBC did not reflect “British values”

This statement omits that 48% of the sample said the BBC reflects ‘British values’. The Daily Express article made a similar omission. Neither of three online articles link to the Savanta ComRes poll.

In the Savanta ComRes survey, the fourth question was:

In an average week, on how many days do you watch BBC TV channels?

14% of the sample said their average week involved zero hours of BBC TV channels. That is one in seven, not one in six. Also, an average week involving less than one hour may not mean ‘never’ to respondents.

We can compare this figure with BARB estimates. This is a panel of households with access to TV or broadband connections. Ipsos MORI conduct the establishment survey. Kantar Media fits selected TVs with meters. RSMB Ltd undertake data processing and quality checks.

About 86% of people (including children) viewed a BBC programme in four-week periods. There will be a small number of households without a TV and no internet connection to watch TV. These households do not need a TV license, but nor could they respond to an internet-based survey.

As analyst Leo Barasi says, these articles misrepresent the survey.

YouGov’s tracking question

YouGov run their own internet panel, and have a regular question about how we should fund the BBC:

Thinking about how the BBC is funded, which of the following would you most like to see?

A plurality chose “the BBC should be funded from advertising in commercial breaks”. In each wave, the central estimate for this option was less than 40%. There is no majority view on how we should fund the BBC.

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So far, there are three waves of this tracker question. (Image: YouGov)

The latest fieldwork was on 20th July 2020.

The status quo option has a lower estimate than the Savanta ComRes poll. We should expect that, as there are more options. Question wording and response options affects the survey estimates. There is fragmentation between adverts, subscription charges, and full public ownership.

Accuracy matters. Journalists should take care when writing about opinion polls. The British Polling Council published a new guide to assist journalists.

This blog looks at the use of statistics in Britain and beyond. It is written by RSS Statistical Ambassador and Chartered Statistician @anthonybmasters.

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