MORECAMBE and Wise, tucked up in bed in their pyjamas, belong to another world, let alone century. Recalling the heyday of British family viewing, when the entire street was watching the same programmes on a Saturday night, is like flicking through the photo album and coming on great-grandma and her starch-collared brood, deadly earnest as they froze for the camera.

As the BBC announces that from June 2020 it will end free TV licences for over-75s who do not receive pension credit, nostalgia for the Beeb of old will be tinged not just with regret but a sense of betrayal. Of course there will be thousands of this vintage who can cough up £150 without a second thought, barely denting their cruise-ship budget or round-the-world jaunts. But we should be in no doubt there are just as many who, even if they do not qualify for pension credit, will have to cut back on other essentials in order to secure this lifeline. And beyond them, hidden in the shadows, are those in serious poverty, who are too proud, too isolated or too uninformed, to apply for benefits they are due.

The argument over whether the licence fee should be free for the elderly, however, is not, and should never be, entirely about affordability. It is a question of principle. We live in an age in which digital entertainment and news provision has become a Wild West frontier, offering myriad possibilities for those with access to online services, the skill to navigate them, and the cash to pay. Netflix, Sky, Amazon Prime and others all clamour for custom, chipping away at the BBC’s once-monolithic status. For a business with a glut of extremely well-paid captains at the helm, the corporation has been astonishingly slow to recognise the threat viewers’ changing habits pose to its future.

I doubt there is anyone under 40 who would not blithely go elsewhere without a moment’s regret. Doubtless they already wonder why they should pay a licence on top of other subscription fees, especially when they can also stream much of what they want for free. But those who are over 75, who grew up with John Reith’s dream, are umbilically attached. The BBC schedule is the clock around which their day is constructed, be it The Archers, Test Match Special, the Six O’Clock News, or The Antiques Roadshow. Without this devoted audience, the BBC would have shrivelled long ago. It is to these stalwarts that Lord Reith’s baby owes its existence, and its prestige. To turf them overboard when money grows tight is not just disgraceful, it makes no sense.

Announcing this decision, in the tones of a funeral director sorry for their loss, the BBC Chairman and Director-General explained the arithmetic in such a way that it seems there is no alternative. The end of Government funding for free licences will leave a £745 million hole in its bank account. The alternative, they said, would be to close stations such as BBC Two and Four, the BBC News Channel, the BBC Scotland Channel and Radio 5 Live, among others, all of which, clearly, is deemed unthinkable.

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Yet the time for the unthinkable is not today. It was not even four years ago, when Westminster gave notice of pulling its subsidy. The moment for a strategic rethink and recalibration was 10 and more years ago. At that point, the exponential expansion of digital platforms was already transforming people’s relationship with screen and sound. This was when the BBC needed to look hard at its role and purpose and come up with a remodelled, leaner profile, fit for a new century. Instead, it has continued to expand, as if tomorrow will never arrive.

Many of the over-75s, a generation bred to thrift, will be puzzled by the Beeb’s fiscal philosophy. Stories of extravagant pay-outs and salaries, of a costly failed IT project, of wastefulness and excess, have dented its reputation as a wise user of licence fees. Surely, instead of penalising those on whose loyalty it has been built, it should be narrowing its focus and making ends meet?

For far too long the corporation has had delusions of grandeur. In trying to position itself as a front-runner in global as well as regional news, in attempting to capture every market and age group, it has spread itself too thin. In the process, its online sites have imperilled the existence of commercial media companies whose survival is not protected by licence-fee payers, as have its magazines.

This is not to suggest giving programme-makers even fewer resources with which to produce the same output. Rather, it is to ask for a radical streamlining, a concentration of energies and talent, on the things the BBC has always done brilliantly: drama, documentaries, music and news. Instead of courting fickle youth, it should be actively nurturing and sustaining older viewers who depend upon it. Axing their free pass is not only an easy and predictable response, but unimaginative and short-sighted – symptoms, you might say, of what already ails it.