Review launched on future of public service broadcasting

THE future of broadcasting that is of ‘public service’, such as news, is to be the subject of a review by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom.

Today, the regulators launched the first phase of the review.

Such reviews are required, by law, to take place every five years, and this review will be exploring different ways that public service broadcasting (PSB) can be funded in the future. One of the main concerns is that a commercial station will find it increasingly hard to justify spending on PSB programmes that, while worthy, might not attract much of an audience – especially now, with so many digital channels available.

The review covers all public service broadcasters, both publicly-owned (the BBC, Channel 4 and S4C) and commercial (ITV1, five and Teletext).

Ofcom believes the main highlights of the consultation to be:

* Public service broadcasting is at a crossroads;
* Audiences value competition for the BBC, but the underlying economics of commercial public service broadcasting are increasingly difficult;
* Audiences place a high value on UK-made public service programming from a mix of providers, but there is risk that this will not be provided to the same degree in the future;
* Audiences are increasingly taking advantage of new digital media to access public service content; and
* A new sustainable model for public service broadcasting is needed, with a range of options for funding and provision considered.

Extensive new research by Ofcom shows that audiences “want content that reflects life in the UK. They want programming which reflects our cultural identity, increases our understanding of the world, stimulates our knowledge and interests and which makes us aware of different cultures and viewpoints”.

Adds Ofcom: “Audiences also want competition to the BBC in public service broadcasting (often called plurality) to continue. They value the range of voices and the higher standards that competition brings. However, the review highlights that the costs to commercially-funded public service broadcasters of making programmes that meet these aims is going up, while their main financial benefit – privileged access to terrestrial broadcasting radio spectrum to transmit programmes – is going down.”

It continues: “As a result, before 2012, the costs of holding ITV1 licences may well exceed the benefits and Channel 4’s financial future will look uncertain. Programming for older children and for the nations and regions of the UK are already commercially unattractive.”

Five years ago, digital television was in a minority of homes and broadband was rare. Now, almost 90 per cent of homes have digital television and the majority have broadband. Ofcom’s research shows that use of the internet to access public service content has grown dramatically since 2003, especially for younger people. Amongst 16-24s with broadband, the internet is now their preferred source for discovering new things and pursuing personal interests.

Despite the expansion of choice, public service broadcasters represent over 90 per cent of total investment in UK television content (excluding sport and film) and account for two-thirds of television viewing. But their audiences are declining as digital viewing and time spent online continues to increase. There has been a 17 per cent decline in the public service channels’ share of viewing between 2003 and 2007, rising to 22 per cent amongst the generation of 16-24 year olds who have grown up with multichannel television and the internet.

Consultation on this first phase closes on June 19.