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Outlook for public broadcasting stronger than commercial TV

A series of recent events suggest that public broadcasting is going through challenging times, but over the next five years, most public broadcasters will actually receive an increase in revenue from public sources, including receiver fees, government grants and other mostly tax-based mechanisms. The financial outlook of public broadcasters is therefore stronger than some of their commercially funded competitors, according to IHS.

“The threat to public broadcasting is often overstated,” said Tim Westcott, principal analyst of television media for IHS Technology. “While political parties with an anti-public service agenda may be waiting in the wings to make life difficult for some individual organisations, we do not believe the sector as a whole is facing an existential threat. In fact, public funding can be a stable and predictable source of income compared to advertising and subscription services.”

For example, based on the latest IHS analysis of BBC and its peers in 45 countries, the BBC enjoyed a 58 per cent increase in license-fee revenue between 1994 and 2014, while its closest commercially funded competitors – ITV and Channel 4 – had to make do with a 28 per cent increase in net advertising revenues over the same period. The combined revenue of BBC’s closest domestic competitors in 2000 was larger; however, the BBC earned more than £1 billion more in revenue than ITV and C4 by 2014. “It’s important to note, however, that these revenue gains are going to be offset by rising operating costs at the BBC,” Westcott said.

In Europe in particular, public broadcasters remain central to the broadcasting landscape, according to the IHS TV Media Intelligence Service. Even in 2015, BBC1, Italy’s Rai 1 and Germany’s ZDF were the most viewed channels in their home markets. This position stems from their origins as monopolies: public channels still occupy a leading position on electronic programme guides, as well as a more intangible position in the public consciousness. Public broadcasters also benefit from studios, technical facilities and other valuable legacy assets. In addition, membership in the European Broadcasting Union and other collective bodies comes with access to news feeds and major sporting events.

The public broadcasting concept also enjoys strong political support, in particular from the European Commission, the Council of Europe (CoE) and other trans-governmental institutions. In fact, the CoE’s Committee of Ministers in January 2007 called on its member states “to guarantee the fundamental role of the public service media in the new digital environment.”

“This kind of endorsement – especially at a time when linear TV audiences are declining in many countries – is some defence against commercial competitors who believe public broadcasters should be at the margins of the market, offering only programming that commercial companies do not see a value in making,” Westcott said.

Germany boasts largest public broadcasting sector, with public revenues totalling €7.6 billion in 2015. With funding of €4.8 billion in 2015, Japan was the next largest, followed by the UK with €4.6 billion.

Countries with the lowest level of per-capita public funding include those, like the US and Brazil, where the vast majority of the market is in the hands of private operators, and countries like New Zealand and Taiwan, where funding supports programming rather than services. Licence fees in two Commonwealth countries, India and New Zealand, were abolished long before the boom in ad-supported and pay-TV.

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