A BBC programme on the future and purpose of the corporation triggered a massive public response at the weekend as viewers took advantage of the BBC's online feedback system.

Broadcast last Sunday on BBC1, 'Panorama: What's the Point of the BBC?' featured a panel discussion including acting BBC director general Mark Byford, Guardian Unlimited editor-in-chief Emily Bell and David Elstein, former chief executive of C5.

More than 1,000 people posted comments to the Panorama website - five times the usual response rate. Presenter Gavin Estler also used emails from viewers to question the panel, and quoted results from a poll conducted by research firm ICM.

Most people surveyed were supportive of the BBC, with around 60 per cent of respondents agreeing that the BBC is trustworthy, good value for money and not politically biased. Sixty-eight per cent of those surveyed also agreed with the statement that 'the BBC is a national institution we should be proud of'.

However, funding methods proved more controversial with a thirty six per cent majority stating that the corporation should be funded by subscriptions paid only by those who want to watch BBC programmes. Thirty-one per cent said that the fee should stay, and a further 31 per cent said the corporation should be funded by advertising.

Emily Bell defended the principle of the licence fee, although she felt that the last fee increase was too high; the fee is now £116 per year for every household in the UK.

"In a democracy you want as many people as possible to have as much access as they can to as broad an amount of information as possible, particularly produced by an independent news organisation," she said.

"The licence fee should endure because it works."

The BBC operates on the basis of a Royal Charter. This charter is due for renewal in 2006, and the government department for culture, media and sport (DCMS) is undertaking a detailed review of the corporation leading up to renewal.

A review of the BBC's online services has also been conducted over the past few months by Philip Graf, former chief executive of the Trinity Mirror newspaper group.

David Elstein recently led a Conservative Party report outlining the party's proposals for the future of the BBC, and told the programme that funding is the corporation's biggest issue.

"The licence fee in my view is misguided. It covers both public service content and entertainment - it should fund neither," he said.

"Taxes should pay for the first, consumers voluntarily for the second."

Adding to the discussion on the BBC Panorama website, UK viewer Michael Nixon pointed out that people around the world enjoy BBC services although they are funded by UK licence fee payers.

"I agree that the people who watch, listen or read the BBC should pay for it. The rest of the world, who listen to online radio, or read the internet site do not pay for anything. How can that be possibly fair?" he said.

"I admit I use the site, and listen to the radio, so charge me accordingly."

Chris Grimmette, another UK viewer, added that the BBC is great value for money.

"Why has no one mentioned the impact of the BBC's website, both nationally and worldwide?" he asked.

"The BBC can only provide such an in-depth, independent, commercial-free service because of the way it is funded. Less than £10 a month - and free for OAPs - for multiple television and radio channels of all different types plus extensive news, programme and general information on the internet.

"I think that's great value."

Public response to the issues raised in the Panorama programme made a valuable contribution to the charter review process, said a BBC spokesperson.

"The way the BBC is funded is one of the issues that will be debated in the charter review debate," the spokesperson told dotJournalism.

"The BBC's position remains that it believes that the licence fee is the best way to fund public service broadcasting. Subscription would change the nature of the relationship with our audience - programmes would be commissioned to drive revenues, and not because they were of public benefit.

"Similarly, access to our services would be restricted to those with low incomes."

The Panorama programme is available online in Real Player format until Sunday 14 March. A transcript of the discussion is also available on the site.

* Until 31 March, the government is conducting a public consultation over the charter renewal process. Full details on the consultation process can be found at http://www.bbccharterreview.org.uk/pc_index.html

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See also:

ICM survey results:

Panorama transcript:

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