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Ofcom: Online viewing growth creates challenges for PSBs

Ofcom has published the conclusions of its third review of public service TV broadcasting, the first review since 2008, suggesting that broadcasters need to adapt their models to maximise commercial revenues and efficiencies, and the PSB system needs to evolve as the trend towards online viewing grows.

The review examines how the BBC, ITV, STV, UTV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C have fulfilled the purposes of public service broadcasting (PSB), and identifies options for how the system could be maintained and strengthened. Ofcom is required by Parliament periodically to review how PSB is performing.

Ofcom’s review finds that the public service broadcasters continue to make a significant contribution to UK broadcasting.

Viewers value PSB programmes, and audience satisfaction is high. Close to eight in ten viewers (79 per cent) believe PSB is delivering on its purposes – such as trustworthy news and high quality programmes that reflect the UK – a notable increase from 69 per cent in 2008.

Over half of all TV viewing is to the main PSB channels – BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, UTV, STV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – rising to over 70 per cent when all the channels broadcast by PSBs, such as time-shifted ‘+1’ channels, are taken into account.

The PSBs make a significant contribution to content creation in the UK. In 2013, they invested just over £2bn in new UK programmes, not including sports content, compared to around £350 million from non-PSB sources.

Evolving public service broadcasting in an online world

Watching online, on demand and across a range of devices are increasingly important to viewers, especially to younger people. Among 16-24 year olds, only 50 per cent of viewing is through live TV as new online services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, BBC iPlayer and All4 give people greater choice of what, and when, to watch.

Public service broadcasters are well placed to take advantage of increased connectivity to engage with audiences in innovative ways. The growth of online viewing also provides opportunities for PSB-like content to be delivered by non-PSB sources. For example, companies such as Vice Media are providing news content to younger people, local content is coming from hyperlocal websites and universities are putting their lectures online.

But challenges are emerging, and PSB needs to respond to changes in technology and viewer behaviour.

Since 2008, investment in new UK content, including sports content, from the PSBs has fallen by around £440m in real terms, a decline of 15 per cent between 2008 and 2014.

Broadcasters have met this challenge through a mixture of savings and changes to the types of programmes they make. As a result, the volume of new content remains high, with 32,491 hours of new UK programmes from the PSBs in 2014, compared to 33,981 hours in 2008.

Audience satisfaction has increased since 2008, up from 69 per cent to 79 per cent in 2014.

But Ofcom believes that broadcasters need to adapt their models to maximise commercial revenues and efficiencies, and the PSB system needs to evolve as the trend towards online viewing grows. Otherwise, PSBs are likely to face difficult choices about which content and services they are able to fund.

Options for maintaining and strengthening public service broadcasting

PSB is supported by certain benefits such as access to valuable digital TV spectrum, prominence on electronic programme guides and, in the BBC’s case, the licence fee.

Policy makers will need to consider whether the benefits designed to enable PSB will remain effective in the Internet age.

  • The BBC is the cornerstone of PSB, so Charter Review will be critical. Ofcom has not, in the course of this review, conducted a detailed analysis of the BBC’s ability to maximise its commercial revenues, realise further efficiencies or refocus its activity to provide greater value for money. These are matters for the forthcoming Charter Review process rather than Ofcom’s PSB Review.

  • Consideration should be given to updating the framework under which Channel 4 Corporation delivers its PSB remit to ensure that it can meet the needs of younger audiences, whose media consumption habits are changing quickly. This could include allowing Channel 4 Corporation to deliver some of its PSB obligations across all its channels and services, not just focusing on its main channel, Channel 4.

  • As more people watch programmes online and on demand, the rules that guarantee access to public service content and PSB prominence on linear TV are likely to need reforming to match changes in technology.

  • Some PSBs want subscription TV services to pay to carry their channels – so called ‘retransmission fees’. These fees could bring additional funding for PSBs, but resolving any possible disagreements would probably require complicated and lengthy regulatory intervention. There is currently no guarantee that all fees would be spent on public service programmes. The Government has consuled on the question of retransmission fees.

Sharon White, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “Public service broadcasting continues to deliver TV that is enjoyed and valued by millions of viewers across the UK. More people are watching online or on demand, and this presents challenges as well as opportunities for public service broadcasters. They must continue to find new ways of connecting with audiences, and the PSB system needs to evolve to ensure it remains effective in the digital age.”

Current challenges for public service broadcasting

Ofcom’s review identified some immediate concerns: news consumption and the provision of news for young people; drama that reflects and portrays British society back to a British audience; content tailored to the specific needs of the UK Nations and their regions; religious programmes; children’s programmes; and investment in music and arts.

Representing different audiences

There are very different sets of challenges in each Nation of the UK. Viewers feel the provision of news is one of the most important of the PSB purposes and, overall, viewers are satisfied with news for their local area.

Audiences across the UK also attach a high degree of importance to the portrayal of their Nation or region but one in five (21 per cent) viewers in Scotland and one in four (26 per cent) viewers in Northern Ireland felt they were portrayed negatively in PSB programmes.

Ofcom research found that over half (55 per cent) of respondents from black ethnic groups felt they were under-represented in PSB programmes and a similar proportion (51 per cent) felt they were negatively portrayed. Around half (51 per cent) of disabled people felt under-represented.

Ensuring PSB reflects the diversity of the UK is an area broadcasters will need to monitor closely to ensure they meet their responsibilities and audience expectations.

Ofcom has partnered with the Creative Diversity Network which will, for the first time, provide data on representation that is standardised, comparable and publicly available.

Ofcom is also working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission on a ‘toolkit’ that will provide practical steps that broadcasters can take to increase diversity.

Viewing and programme investment

Since 2008, viewing of TV news has fallen by 29 per cent among people aged 16-34. Websites from the PSBs remain important but younger audiences also use Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube to stay up-to-date and informed. PSBs need to find ways of delivering news that will appeal to younger audiences.

Spending on first-run UK children’s programmes has fallen in real terms, from £103m in 2008 to £88m in 2014. Spending by ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 has dropped 74 per cent overall, to just £3m in 2014, leaving the BBC to account for nearly 97 per cent (£84m) of total PSB spending on children’s programmes.

Investment in drama has also fallen. PSBs continue to deliver high-profile, big-budget dramas, such as Sherlock, Doctor Who and Downton Abbey. But spending on first-run UK drama has declined by 44 per cent in real terms since 2008, from £484m in 2008 to £278m in 2014. The amount of new drama being shown on the PSB channels has fallen from 627 hours in 2008 to 371 hours in 2014 – a decline of 41 per cent.

Channel 4’s media content duties

Ofcom has today also published a review of Channel 4 Corporation’s delivery of its media content duties across its full range of channels and services.

Ofcom’s review found that Channel 4 Corporation has broadly performed well in delivering its duties over the review period (2010-2013). It has produced a broad range of relevant media content that appeals to a culturally-diverse society; made high-quality films; and broadcast and distributed that content.

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