for diverse, democratic and accountable media

CPBF submission on Public Service to the Culture Media and Sport Committee

policies & issues |

New Inquiry: Public service media content. January 2007.

CPBF submission to the Culture Media and Sport Committee, House of Commons. New Inquiry: Public service media content. January 2007.

The Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF)

The CPBF was established in 1979. It is the leading independent membership organisation dealing with questions of freedom, diversity and accountability in the UK media. It is membership based, drawing its support from individuals, trade unions and community based organisations. It has consistently developed policies designed to encourage a more pluralistic media in the UK and has regularly intervened in the public and political debate over the future of broadcasting in the United Kingdom since it was established.

The prospects for maintaining plurality in public service broadcasting in the digital age

The backbone of broadcasting in the UK BBC (TV and Radio) ITV1, Channel 4, SC4 and Channel 5, are services that are required to provide a range, at different levels of intensity, of public service programmes. The BBC is funded by a licence fee and the commercial sector depends on advertising and sponsorship. Since 1954 commercial TV in the UK, unlike its counterpart in the USA, has had significant public service obligations. Since 1990 ITV has become less and less of a public service broadcaster, but it and the other public service commercial channels still retain obligations to provide programming that is designed to do something more than just make profits.

The prospects for maintaining plurality in public service broadcasting in this digital age are good but they depend on political will to support major public intervention through effective pursuance of public service obligations on commercial broadcasters and continued support for the BBC via the licence fee. This is contrary to Ofcom's view, whose record of defending public service provision on ITV leaves much to be desired; whose support the concept of a Public Service Provider to compensate for some lost public service programming is inadequate, and whose belief in greater dependency on market forces for programme provision i.e. providing what is profitable, puts the future of public service broadcasting at risk.

It's worth reminding ourselves that public service broadcasting means producing programmes which address the widest possible range of audiences, serving the public at large, not just certain sections of the public, or the interests of producers and broadcasters, or the dictates of the market. Sometimes it is about experimentation and risk-taking, but its core aim is the production of programmes designed to cover the widest range of output. It means news and current affairs, educational and arts programmes, comedy and soaps, drama, sport, films, quiz shows and light entertainment. For the BBC it also means providing music and speech radio of quality and variety and delivering the most successful ranges of interactive programming and Internet web pages and other internet related services in the world.

It is also worth noting that there are other commercial broadcasters, notably Sky television, which do not have public service broadcasting obligations, and only produce programming that maximises their profits. In order not just to maintain but improve the plurality of public service broadcasting, consideration should be given to placing some public service broadcasting obligations on these broadcasters perhaps based on them reaching a certain percentage of viewing share.

The idea that the new digital age means you cannot have significant public service channels because there are too many channels for it to work distorts the truth. Regulation can be put in place to ensure that major services in the UK are required to adhere to key public service values. The BBC has already pioneered a model of how psb can have a strong presence in the digital universe that is emerging. The model, which the Committee should, we would argue support, is one of BBC plus. By this we mean sustaining a strong UK production base by supporting the BBC so it can grow into the new areas, and examining ways in which existing public service commercial providers can make a similar contribution.

The practically of continuing to impose public service obligations on commercial broadcasters

Public service broadcasting has been sustained and financed over many years by a mutually reinforcing mix of institutions, funding and regulation. Leaving aside the BBC, historically this was provided by commercial broadcasters in return for privileges and discounted access to the analogue spectrum. The issue is not that commercial broadcasters will cease to be viable, or even strong, businesses. It is that the set of incentives which have impelled the shareholder-funded businesses to provide public service broadcasting will disappear. There is no compelling reason why the existing public service system cannot be strengthened and extended into the emerging digital age. It is a matter of public policy whether or not this should be allowed to happen through government policy and the intervention of Ofcom. If it is deemed desirable the means can be willed. Any reduction or decline will only take place if the government and the regulator fail to intervene in a positive way to prevent it (as Ofcom has done in allowing the run down by ITV of its public service broadcasting obligations). This is based on the false assumption that public service on UK TV will have to be reduced because the market is better at providing broadcasting. This has shaped and continues to shape the regulator's policy framework and unless reversed, will become a self-filling prophecy.

Methods for doing this could include:

[a] reduced cost of spectrum access in return for public service programme provision;

[b] tax allowances linked to a commitment on the part of commercial broadcasters to produce public service programming

[c] a levy on advertising, sponsorship and other commercial revenues which would be used to fund public service broadcasting provision in the commercial sector

[d] taking public control of the ITV, C4 and S4C archives of material that were produced under the system of public service broadcasting and using the income from these sources to help fund new productions

[e] imposing a statutory obligation on digital commercial broadcasters whose market share exceeds a specified limit to spend a proportion of their income on public service broadcasting.

[f] reconsidering OFCOM's remit to enhance its obligations to promote public service broadcasting across the developing media, and to limit its powers of interference with the BBC.

The viability of existing funding models for ITV, Channel Four and Five and The case for public funding of broadcasters in addition to the BBC

We have no objections to the government using a range of powers (some of which we outline elsewhere in this submission) to help provide wide- ranging public service content in addition to the BBC. We do not, however, think it is, in the long term, wise to use money from the licence fee to do this. The BBC needs to be sustained as a major provider of non-commerical public service broadcasting first and foremost. In addition the government should develop ways to ensure that psb is supplemented and extended into the existing and emerging commercial sectors. The case for this rests upon the wider sets of reasons we have discussed about the social, political and economic desirability of sustaining psb across the emerging platforms.

This means that ITV, C4, C5 and S4C need to remain as key elements in the mix, and measures, such as the ones described in this submission, should be immediately considered to bolster their position and obligations as public service broadcasters.

The future of key areas of public service media content such as news provision and children's programming

These areas should not be seen as separate from other areas of psb provision. Hiving them off as if they were the only, or the most important areas, will help weaken political commitment to the whole range of output.

In a system which is organised to support psb provision across the whole range of output, news and children's TV should have central places. Recent, (post 1990 Broadcasting Act) reductions in these areas have been associated primarily with changes at ITV. These have been due, in essence, to the lack of an imaginative and robust regulatory regime, and could, were that rectified, be halted and reversed.

It is important to note that we prefer the long-standing, broad interpretation of ‘public service': to ‘inform, educate and entertain'. This should remain the basis of the approach in the digital era. In other words the attempt to separate out ‘public service' programmes from ‘entertainment' ones, and ‘public service' channels from the rest, could remove from the BBC the challenge of making quality programmes for the broadest audience, and destroy the healthy competition which has existed between commercially funded broadcasters and the BBC.

Historically, the ITV companies supported genres such as current affairs and children's programmes, partly because they were required to do so by the regulator of the day, but also because the climate of opinion, shared by the managements of companies such as Thames and Granada, valued a diverse mix.

The current legislation has encouraged a more commercial climate of opinion, and Ofcom has abandoned the challenge of regulating the commercial channels in the multi-channel digital environment. The results can be seen in ITV's abandoning of any programmes beyond the most popular.

Yet the public service aim of a universality of provision and appeal, includes serving groups of citizens who have little market power, and so are likely to be overlooked by a market based system, in particular children and the poorer members of society.

Research on current affairs programming -which has long provided an essential back-up to news reporting, requiring long term commitment to in depth investigation and persistent reporting- has shown that the numbers of these programmes has shrunk, on the BBC as well as the commercial channels. They have all but disappeared on ITV. In a democracy the maintenance of mainstream, serious current affairs is the core of any commitment to an informed citizenship.

Children should be at the centre of public service across the channels. Without competition the BBC may be tempted to broadcast children's programmes only on the dedicated channels. Many of the global media companies who are buying into UK commercial television have a backlog of programmes with ‘international' appeal to dump.

Without a strong, independent, commercially funded channel committed to diverse programming and a respect for its audience, the BBC faces no competitor, and public service television is the weaker.

Sharing out the licence fee is not the answer, since the strength of the system has come from the different sources of funding. Channel Four was able to adopt its completely original remit, because, at first, it too, was differently funded. But Ofcom needs to find ways of retaining ‘positive regulation' of commercial channels in the digital era  - and should consider extending regulatory requirements to non-terrestrial channels.

The value of the PSP concept as advanced by Ofcom

Ofcom has proposed setting up of a new non-commercial Public Service Publisher (PSP). This would compete with the BBC by providing what it described as public service broadcasting on a new digital channel. At first glance this seems to be a good idea. It is right to look to new ways of delivering public service content across new digital platforms. But a closer examination reveals a number of flaws.

When the idea of a PSP was first floated, Ofcom pointed out that total TV broadcasting revenues, including the licence fee amounted to £9.534 billion in 2003 (Ofcom, The Communications Market 2004—Overview (London, Ofcom 2004). Yet it suggests that in 2012, £300 million, less than 3% of the revenues in UK TV should be spent on the PSP (Ofcom, Phase 2—Meeting the Digital Challenge: Ofcom review of public service broadcasting (London, Ofcom, 2004).

This is a tiny amount, compared to the ITV total revenues in 2003 of £2.6 billion, let alone the size of the total market. A non-commercial publisher might provide a useful future addition to the public service mix, but must not be a substitute for what ITV, C4, S4C and C5 should be providing. There are also serious questions of accountability—how would the funding be monitored and against what criteria?

Over the past few years Ofcom has allowed ITV to withdraw from its major public service commitments and sees the PSP as an alternative public service programme provider in the absence of such commitments. This is clearly not the case, the impact of PSP would be negligible and would not deal with the overall problem of ensuring sufficient funding for ITV, C4 S4C, and C5 so that they can continue to act as serious commercially funded public service broadcasters to compete with the BBC in the future.

The PSP model has been devised by Ofcom therefore to overcome a problem of its own creation. Instead of thinking about bolstering public service provision across all commercial media, its assumption has been that this is not worthwhile nor economically possible. These views stem from the partiality of Ofcom as a body, which has a clear, non-neutral, position, in that it explicitly supports market solutions to regulatory problems. This is due, not to any empirical evidence which favours its view, but to the ideological hue the institution acquired through the passage of the Communications Act and the associated limitations of outlook amongst senior Ofcom employees. Supporting a PSP model is therefore not a case of supporting a careful, empirically grounded solution to emerging problems, but would involve supporting an ill thought out device whose only merit is that it is consistent with Ofcom's overall political orientation.

Given a different policy context in which the BBC's role as a provider of public service broadcasting is enhanced and ITV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5's roles as commercial public service broadcasting providers is defended and developed, a mechanism such as a public service publisher might provide a way of developing public service broadcasting content across other providers.

The case for provision of public service material on new media

There is no doubt that the future organisation of public service media in the UK has to respond to the rapidly changing economic and technological context of communications.

The question of whether there should be a major provision of public service media is a political question. If politicians consider that the market can provide a diverse range of materials accessible to all citizens for a minimum cost, including drama, current affairs, news, documentary, high quality comedy, science programming etc, then logically there is no need for public service media. This is not, however, what is believed by even the more ardent believers in the market, including Professor Alan Peacock and Ofcom.

Their argument acknowledges that there needs to be public intervention because the market cannot and will not provide for certain minorities. Hence they support concepts such as an Arts Council of the Airwaves ( stemming from the Report on the Financing of the BBC ( 1986) or the Public Service Publisher (Ofcom).

But this is an argument based on the idea that it is desirable to leave the bulk of provision to the market, so that those who are most economically and culturally skilled already can get what the market provides by using their resources to seek out and enjoy the publicly funded minority programming. This is a form of policy which will end up excluding the majority of the population from regular contact with a wide range of different cultural experiences.

The case for sustaining a major, free to view or listen public service provision across all major new platforms rests of the view that it is morally proper not to exclude people from educative benefits of contact with a wide range of public service provision on the grounds of their acquired educational or economic disadvantages. It is a similar case to the ones used to justify the provision of health or educational services free at the point of delivery and without discrimination based on education or economics. It assumes that the outcome of such policies will be a more varied social, political and cultural environment available to the whole of society than that which will emerge from a system based on the market alone.

There is also an industrial case. This is that if you open production solely to the forces of the market you are likely to see the development in the UK of a TV industry mirroring the film industry. In the latter, despite the continuance of high quality production, the economics of scale have allowed the larger US market to drive production and consumption. The UK is particularly vulnerable to this because of its linguistic and cultural affinity to the United States. Historically the major investment in public service broadcasting in the UK has prevented the development of a similar scenario in TV to that in film in the UK. In addition it has fostered a set of technical and artistic skills that are internationally admired. The case for major provision of public service content in the future rests also on this important economic case.

The lowering of entry costs to the new media also helps obviate the need to be worried about the impact of a strong psb sector on emerging markets. As well as providing economic stimuli to the industry as a whole, a strong psb sector can provide a spur to those companies who want to outdo psb in the market place and develop distinctive provision.

One of the successes of the BBC in recent times has been its ability to innovate and move successfully into new media. For example its web site is one of the best in the world, from which you can down load podcasts, ‘listen again' broadcasts, interrogate video and audio news—and is known as a benchmark for quality. Its two new digital channels, interactive TV, digital radio and the decision by the government to ask the BBC to lead on the switchover from analogue to digital broadcasting reinforces the case that there is already a significant presence of public service material on new media. It could be said that the BBC is the successful model for others to follow.

DATELINE: 24 January, 2010