Guardian tech has published a story this week about the cost of the BBC website for users and license payers, leading to some very interesting discussions about paywalls. There is some confusion over the exact cost of the site depending on how you calculate things (not all license fee payers use it – while not all users are license fee payers etc), but roughly the figure is either 67p/month for each license fee payer, or £8.04 per year.

It should be noted however that this is based on the BBC’s own figures for how much it spent on its online service – which doesn’t take into account the fact that much of the material is sourced from its news or radio arms for example, and is paid for by their budgets. So, probably the true figure is a fair chunk higher than the £8/annum above, but it’s simply impossible to calculate (if a show is delivered across multiple platforms, including the website, how to split the costs of its production for such a calculation?).

In a way though, it doesn’t matter too much for what I would like to discuss here – which is the overwhelmingly positive response from users to the reports of the website’s cost. This is perhaps not surprising, as, due to the aforementioned distortion, the BBC’s ‘implied paywall’ is roughly 10 times lower than similar(-ish) competitors such as the Times website.

However, I would venture to say that, even in the hypothetical scenario of the entire license fee being used solely for the website, it would still represent pretty good value for money when compared to other competitors for similar news and media. Indeed, judging by the comments on the aforementioned article, people are more than comfortable with the idea of paying for online content, and the notion that the majority somehow expect online media to be free is thoroughly contradicted.

Nonetheless, the BBC system does suggest that when it comes to the paywall model, economies of scale are better placed to deliver value. In short, the BBC offers so, so much through its various services that I doubt anyone would be turned off from paying for the license fee simply due to a slight year-on-year increase for example. Smaller providers on the other hand have a lot less wriggle-room regarding price – a few pounds can make all the difference to user numbers.

I suppose what I’m getting at is the fact that, judging from the discussions following the BBC’s accounts publications, BBC website users are strongly indicating that they would happily pay for the service, even if it was offered through a more standard monthly paywall model (rather than the beeb’s rather unique license fee payment system).

Paywalls therefore are not inherently unworkable, as some commentators have suggested – though they usually can only work well as part of a strategy that mixes up free and premium (paywall) services (Spotify is a great example). On the other hand however, such a system would not work for every online media provider – some, unfortunately perhaps, must make do only with ad revenue or go under (the general rule is, of course, the less unique you are, the less users will be prepared to stump up for content).

Perhaps this is why even Google CEO Eric Schmidt refuses to condemn paywalls, despite the relatively high profile disagreement between Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and Google over the UK newspaper, The Times’s, online content (which now has a paywall as a result of the spat). The concept is certainly one which we can expect to see more and more in the future, particularly as publishing – in its traditional guises – continues to decline. The golden era of ‘free’ is, and has been, drawing to a close for some time with regard to online media content. In its place there is currently the priced mobile app, the paywall and other such revenue models, of which we can expect to see more and more in the future.

Dejan Levi