For years the BBC and its financing model have belonged to that small category of things that make no sense in theory but work well in practice. Now that model is imperilled, the BBC will be forced to abandon its traditional role and find its place in the modern media landscape. The country, and the world, will be the poorer for it.
The UK government recently announced that the annual television license fee, the BBC's main source of funds, will be frozen at 159 pounds ($217) for the next two years, then rise to keep pace with inflation for four years after that. More importantly, the minister in charge added (before colleagues told her to walk it back) that this would be the last such settlement.
In the short term, the Beeb faces a tighter financial squeeze than the rest of Britain's public sector. Beyond that, if the license fee ends, the very idea of BBC-style public-service broadcasting is in doubt.
This license fee has always been a conspicuous and seemingly indefensible anomaly. Why is a public-sector supplier of news and entertainment needed in the first place?
And, if you were going to have one, why on earth pay for it with an annual tax on TVs that demanded the same payment from people regardless of income?
Yet look at the results. Against the odds, given the upheaval in its industry, the Beeb has managed not only to survive but also to prosper. Yes, there has a good deal of dreck, but the BBC produces much more than its fair share of high-quality television and radio of all kinds — at comparatively modest cost.
Its output is popular at home and has burnished Britain's standing in the world. Its coverage of news and current affairs is impartial and authoritative.
All these features were, and are, of a piece. The license fee separates the BBC from the government in a way that a subvention of ordinary tax revenue would not.
It requires openness and accountability, encouraging tight control of costs, for instance putting downward pressure on what stars can be paid. It cements the obligation to serve all the public, underlining the commitment to political impartiality and reminding the enterprise to make broadly popular programs as well as more sophisticated, educational or otherwise aspirational material.
In these ways, it creates a cultural space in which Brits, whether they know it or not, can relate to each other and find they have something in common.
The contrast with public-service broadcasting in the US is stark. It is not just that American providers are starved of public resources.
Relying heavily on private donations pushes NPR and PBS toward programming that will please their comparatively narrow, liberal-minded segment of financial supporters. Public-service broadcasting in the US does not even try to serve the whole public. It serves its niche.
In fact, a true American equivalent of the BBC is virtually unimaginable. The concept of public service at a distance from partisan politics still has purchase in Britain — think of the career civil service, the judiciary, management of elections, appointments to the central bank, agencies such as the Office for Budget Responsibility and countless other arms-length public agencies and non-government organisations.
In the US the nonpartisan tradition is all but dead. Perhaps the armed services are still mostly above politics. Otherwise, almost every institution that intersects with public policy — not just designing it, but executing, influencing, analysing and explaining it — is partisan.
Nowhere is this more true than in the media. Britain has long had brazenly partisan newspapers — which made the BBC all the more valuable.
In the US, esteemed newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post once presumed to play a similar role. (I recall that many years ago I was on a panel with a Times reporter who seemed genuinely offended by my describing his paper as liberal.)
Today, those once-authoritative and trusted-to-be-impartial papers have chosen sides. The perfection of the media market, accelerated by social media, favours partisan commitment.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has doubtless turned against the BBC to distract attention from his latest embarrassments. But the Beeb has longer-term problems.
As competition and unbundling intensify, it will continue to lose viewers and the loyalty of the public. Sooner or later, the license-fee model will become politically unsustainable, and the formula that delivered this great and improbable public goodwill unravel.
One can imagine the BBC, in due course, as just another TV and audio production company, bidding for its modest share of public subsidy. Britain, and anywhere else the Beeb can be seen or heard, will never be the same.
Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.