A majority of Britons object to paying for the BBC, according to research unveiled by one of the broadcaster’s biggest rivals.

Tony Ball, chief executive of Rupert Murdoch-controlled satellite operator BSkyB, late last week launched a blistering attack on the BBC’s public funding and its use to fulfil “expansionary ambitions”.

Speaking before the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Ball unveiled research from NOP showing 51% of viewers believe the licence fee – the tax on TV-owning households that funds the BBC – is not good value for money, with low-income groups especially dissatisfied.

To counter allegations of bias, BSkyB used the same question as a Mori poll in 1999. In that survey, 42% were dissatisfied with the licence fee.

Commercial broadcasters have become increasingly frustrated with the BBC in recent years as the Corporation has chased ratings and invested heavily in internet and digital services. Rivals claim it is using public money to tread on the toes of the private sector.

In response, the BBC argues it is aiding the take-up of digital television by launching and promoting new channels. Such claims are undermined by the BSkyB survey, in which 67% of dTV subscribers said that the Corporation’s offerings did not play a part in their switch to digital.

“The results of this research should wave a big red flag against those who wish the BBC to carry on its expansionary ambitions,” blasted Ball.

The Sky chief has chosen one of the most high-profile speeches in the British TV calendar – the James MacTaggart memorial lecture – to launch his offensive. His attack on the licence fee is well-timed, coming at a sensitive moment for the BBC. The Corporation is locked in a bitter dispute with the government over its reporting of the build-up to war on Iraq, significantly at a time when ministers are reviewing the charter under which it operates.

Many observers see BSkyB – by far the nation’s biggest digital TV platform – and the BBC as the two leading players in the emerging UK television landscape. Both Murdoch and Ball are thought to regard the Corporation as the biggest commercial threat to their ambitions.

But despite BSkyB’s claims of increasing disenchantment with the licence fee, Britons may find the alternatives even more unpalatable. A separate survey released last week showed a majority of Britons – in particular those in the 24–35 demographic Sky targets – oppose paid-for advertising on the BBC [WAMN: 20-Aug-03].

Data sourced from: MediaGuardian.co.uk; additional content by WARC staff