11 December, 2020
Public Service Broadcasters: a valued institution in search of a new model
On 8 December 2020, Ofcom published the findings from Small Screen: Big Debate (SS:BD) – its review of public service broadcasting. The publication brings together findings from its extensive SS:BD research and analysis, and is based on conversations over the course of nearly a year with audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the UK, as well as more than 70 stakeholders, including broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts in the UK and abroad, as well as investigation of relevant models and approaches in other countries. The extensive research ranged from the impact of lockdown on audiences’ relationship with PSBs, to international perspectives on public service broadcasting as well as independent reports commissioned from the London School of Economics. SS:BD concluded with an unparalleled virtual conference with the PSBs, looking at the big questions facing public service media. You can watch the conference here.
In this way, Ofcom has tried to address the question of how to maintain and strengthen public service broadcasting across the next decade and beyond, and the consultation outlines options for modernising the current framework in order to deliver public service media (PSM) for audiences watching broadcast TV and online.
The key findings of this exercise were that:
PSB is a valued institution facing critical challenges
Public service content still matters hugely to people and society. People identify trusted, accurate news as the most important aspect of public service media. Viewers of all ages and backgrounds value PSBs’ ability to bring society together, through coverage of events and programmes watched by millions.
Audiences also value public-service content that the market is unlikely to provide, such as children’s, educational and religious programming.
But public service broadcasting is at a critical juncture. Audiences are increasingly turning away from the traditional PSB channels in favour of global streaming and online services offering vast libraries and personalised content.
Public service broadcasting also faces a triple funding threat from falls in advertising revenue; the cost of needing to grow digital services while maintaining traditional ones; and the coronavirus pandemic, which has raised costs and quickened viewers’ shift to online platforms.
A vision for the future
To help preserve the vital benefits of public service broadcasting, Ofcom has drawn on a wealth of research and evidence to make its proposals for how PSB can stay relevant and reach everyone in future, and has asked for comments and input on these:
Laws and regulation must be overhauled. The rules and laws around public service broadcasting largely date from when the internet was still in its infancy – and they remain focused on traditional broadcasting. Without radical changes to support PSBs’ shift from traditional broadcasting to online, the challenges facing them may become acute.
Ofcom is calling for a new framework to establish clear goals for public service broadcasters, with greater choice over how they achieve them, and quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news. Companies should be required to set out, measure and report on their plans, with Ofcom holding them to account.
Other companies could become public service media providers. Alongside the content provided by existing PSBs, new providers could help deliver public service media in future.
This new content could focus on specific groups of people or types of programme. New providers could offer different skills, expertise and online experience – leading to wider benefits to audiences and the economy. They could be granted prominence and availability benefits that are currently only enjoyed by today’s PSBs, and also be incentivised by tax relief and contestable funding.
A new model for stable funding. Given funding pressures, public service media needs stable revenues to support creative risk-taking, innovation and efficient long-term planning. Public funding decisions are a matter for government, so Ofcom has set out a range of options, including international comparisons, outlining the benefits and drawbacks. These include full or part subscription models. There is also potential for cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local investigative news.
Partnerships could help PSBs better compete – as well as connect with audiences. Deeper relationships between PSBs and other companies – particularly on platforms and distribution – could help them compete more effectively with global players, and reach wider audiences. Shared research and development, performance data and back-office activities could also reduce costs, improve efficiencies and aid innovation.
Ofcom is consulting on questions from the proposals until 16 March 2021 and will also carry out further work on the scope and terms of rules that could govern the availability of public service content. Separately, Ofcom reviews the UK production sector, to assess if the current terms remain effective.
Ofcom will make recommendations to the UK government in 2021.
Further EPRA background:The Small Screen: Big Debate's project was presented to EPRA members by Garreth Lodge (Ofcom) during the webinar on 'Regulators & citizens' as part of the 52nd EPRA meeting.