Public Service Broadcasting

On 6 November 2003 the Office of Communication (Ofcom) launched a Full Review of UK Public Service Broadcasting.

In July 2000 mediawatch-uk published the following response to an ITC Consultation on the same subject.


ublic Service Broadcasting, whereby a single television or radio channel, funded by the public, provides a broad range of programming, including news and current affairs, is a concept which has real validity where there is only one or a small number of channels in operation. As such this approach to broadcasting has worked very well in the past and has provided a genuine service to the public by providing high technical quality and a mix of programming with wide appeal. In a multi-channel environment, with many commercial channels providing specialist or general programming, the case for PSB is much less valid.

In a mature democracy it is essential that the system of broadcasting in operation provides information, education and entertainment in which a passion for excellence is the obvious and overriding consideration. Excellence, however, is achieved at a price and adequate funding is necessary.

In the ITC consultation document under consideration we would agree with its authors that all of the elements mentioned in Section 4 constitute PSB but it is difficult to see how this vision can be sustained indefinitely in a competitive environment. Competition from other channels, a consequence of deregulation, means that audiences will steadily fragment as more and more households opt to subscribe to cable and/or satellite networks which offer programming in different more appealing packages.

Although universal access can be assured, universal viewing cannot be guaranteed as is demonstrated by falling audience share for the main terrestrial TV channels. Last year (1999) BBC audience share was reported to have fallen below 30% and ITV is having difficulty in meeting its targets for audience share which, in the multi-channel environment, may be becoming unrealistic.

There are a number of reasons for this: take up of satellite and cable services has been accelerated by BSKYB and ONdigital giving away digital decoders and by reducing connection charges thus giving viewers greater choice; 90% of homes have video recorders and the availability of bought or rented video cassettes must impact on television viewing figures; many people now use Internet services and this new medium must also impact on viewing figures. And not to be forgotten or minimised is the obvious conclusion that the programmes on offer by the established terrestrial channels simply do not appeal to viewers and perhaps many people watch little television and now engage in other worthwhile activities as a result. It is not without significance, either, that many supermarkets and other retail out-lets, now stay open much later than in previous generations and entertaining at home has moved up the modern social agenda. Television has now to compete with many more leisure activities and pursuits, as well as changing work patterns, than simply other channels.


he fragmentation of audiences that has already occurred means that PSB TV channels can no longer command large audiences unless there is some national event that interests everyone. The huge audiences of the past, for example, for the Christmas Morecambe and Wise Shows or the final series of 'Only Fools and Horses', will be impossible in the future. Only on the great state occasions of national interest, where coverage is exclusive or shared by one or two channels, will large audiences be achievable.

It is clear that increasing competition that has resulted from technical innovation and deregulation has had great impact on the way television is now used. PSB, as a concept, has suffered as a consequence and programme standards have also suffered in the frantic scramble to maintain audience share. For Independent Television to abandon altogether its commitment to PSB is clearly not in the public interest while the majority of households rely wholly on the five terrestrial channels for their television services. We agree with the Culture Secretary's reservation that analogue signals should not be switched off until the 95% of households can afford and can access digital services. Until that time arrives the PSB commitment of the commercial channels should remain. After analogue switch off, and multi-channel television is a reality for every household, the validity of PSB as defined above will be greatly diminished.

The BBC regards itself as the Public Service Broadcaster par-excellence and has a rich heritage giving testimony to this claim. However, times have changed and the BBC itself has succumbed to the general lowering of standards in order to compete with the commercial sector. This trend was even criticised by BBC Governors in the Annual Report published in June 2000. In order to stay competitive and bolster falling ratings in the multi-channel digital age the BBC has recently announced plans to stream programming across its channels. And so even at the BBC the original concept of PSB has undergone a radical rethink, which has not been met with universal approval or been the subject of any dialogue with licence fee payers.

We can foresee that legislative changes may be necessary to allow PSB channels to shed some of the programme requirements that presently pertain. However, the public interest must be safeguarded because programmes that have never attracted large audiences, like news and current affairs, are necessary in a mature democracy which can only function effectively with a well educated and informed public. It should not be acceptable that news and current affairs should be found only on specialised channels. Parliament must ensure that any new regulatory regime must insist that most or all television channels have some requirements in this regard even if it is only to 'advertise' news and current affairs programmes on other channels. It is also most important that news and current affairs maintain substantial national identity and relevance rather than 'local' news be subsumed within some global or other context. It is apparent that different news channels that presently exist have different agendas and priorities that do not always reflect the national interest.

It is difficult to speculate and predict how well the market will deliver PSB. Experience with multi-channel television to date indicates that PSB is not the highest priority for commercial channels whose main aim is obviously to maximise returns on investment by attracting advertising revenue and profits for shareholders. It is evident from the low budget off-the-shelf and usually repeated programming that dominate many of the new channels that the provision of good quality programming is either not the highest priority or cannot be afforded.

The growth of television services paid for by subscription fees is a relatively new phenomenon and their rapid take up is a consequence of increased levels of income and improved living standards and expectations. Equally, it is an indication that the established channels are simply not able to provide programming that many people want or expect. It is plain that households that have opted for additional services prefer to use the services for which they have paid directly in preference to those they have not. As such there is an emerging culture which regards obligatory licence fees for services they do not want or use as unacceptable. This culture change is being accelerated simply by the take up of multi-channel digital and other services.

It is evident that "purely commercial channels" should be required within the conditions of the licences issued by the competent regulatory authority that a wide range of programming should be available from a range of channels. It is clearly not in anyone's interests to have many channels devoted only to one style or genre of programming. We appreciate that there are implications for viewer choice by regulating the "bundles" of channels that are offered by some providers. If the viewing public is to be served by television it is important that value for money is evident from the programmes on offer. New, original programming should be budgeted for in the prospectus of every channel seeking or renewing a licence to operate.


unding for PSB provided by the BBC is by an obligatory Licence Fee. Funding for the Commercial or Independent Television sector is by advertising revenue. The only other source of adequate revenue is by direct taxation. This would certainly not be a popular with the viewing public and would therefore not be considered by the Government. Having set up the Davies Committee to examine ways that additional funding might be raised for the BBC a "digital supplement" did not win favour but a general increase in the licence fee was approved. Many licence fee payers resented the fact that the increase was needed to fund digital services and Internet services that not all use or want.

In the submission made to the Davies Committee this Association said that additional funding could be made available from the abundant proceeds of the National Lottery. The BBC could certainly be regarded as a cultural institution that benefits practically every household in the country. The Lottery, we said, owes its success principally to the BBC, which promotes it throughout its television and radio schedules. The projected growth of Lottery income, around £9 billion by 2001, is around four times the annual amount raised to fund BBC operations by the Licence fee at its current level.

If Parliament requires it the role of the competent regulatory authority should be to ensure that PSB is delivered across a wide range of services and platforms. However, the role of the regulatory authority, acting in the public interest, clearly needs to evolve to keep pace with the evolving television environment.


he way many people now use television has changed significantly in recent years and will continue to change as more and more people take advantage of the new capabilities. The introduction of digital technology has been driven forward by the industry and given considerable impetus by political pressure at home and abroad: the Information Society, apparently, should not and cannot be stopped. With high-pressure marketing and promotional television programming and advertising the technical revolution has been carried forward. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many people have invested quite large sums of money and huge amounts of time in the rapidly growing computer technologies. The pressure to keep pace with the latest consumer fashion is hard to resist.

So far as broadcasting is concerned it will always be essentially a service for the public however this may be defined in the future. It is difficult to predict how the viewing public will adapt to the multi-channel environment in the longer term, but research done elsewhere indicates that most people stay with two or three channels, that fulfil their requirements, after the initial 'channel hopping' novelty wears off.

In these circumstances the public interest is best served if television channels that suit particular viewers are the ones they pay for by individual subscription. It should not be necessary to have to pay subscriptions for channels, which also benefit, that are not required. Consumer choice is the rationale in every other market driven industry and reasons why this should not apply to television in the future need to be explained. If programme costs are high then subscriptions to those channels should be correspondingly high. There should also be a workable system of pay-per-view by which individual programmes or series from any channel may be viewed. Such a system could turn out to be the best way to ensure that excellence is maintained because viewers will, by choice, simply not pay for unacceptably offensive and/or inferior programming that has been foisted on the viewing public for too long. Such a scheme will prove, once and for all, whether the viewers really want the programming that the broadcasters have been prescribing.

The justification for PSB is to be found in the need for a well educated and informed public. It is true that this high ideal could be achieved by the private as well as by the public sector. Competition between the private and public sectors has led to healthy and robust debate and discussion of a wide range of public policy issues. It has also led to a healthy and robust questioning of those, in the political and other institutions, who devise and implement policy decisions. That these matters can be properly and adequately dealt with if PSB is diminished must rest with the competent regulatory authority. In any event Parliament must ensure that adequate provision is made for such programming, elements of which should be met by each channel. If PSB is to be retained in the private sector this will probably have to be a political decision.

In any event an improved system of content regulation will be needed. This Association has already submitted a paper, entitled 'Empowering the Viewer', responding to the joint Department of Culture Media and Sport/Department of Trade and Industry consultation, setting out how the viewer's role in determining content acceptability can be improved. Regulation of broadcast content will remain a high expectation of the public no matter what channel is received by whatever platform. Digital switch over by itself should have no bearing on the maintenance of high quality programming accompanied by properly regulated standards of good taste and decency and impartiality. The facilities enabling public participation in these matters are in need of radical improvement.

13 July 2000

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