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Elstein book criticises “dozy” Ofcom

David Elstein, chairman of the Broadcasting Policy Group, is – not for the first time – highly critical of the way the UK’s public service TV obligations are being allowed to evaporate by regulator Ofcom. He says “the blind protectors of the BBC are hastening its demise”.

His comments are contained in a chapter in a new book and highlighted on the influential ‘OurBEEB’ blog-site, says that the “supposed guardians of Public Service Broadcasting – the BBC, Channel 4 and Ofcom (and to a much lesser extent ITV and Five) – are the guilty parties. The main criterion against which Ofcom measures PSB performance is the volume of UK originations, by value. What its reports demonstrate is a steady downward trajectory, such that the BBC and the commercial PSBs (ITV, Channel 4 and 5) each generates just £1 billion’s worth of UK origination, outside sport: a 15 per cent decline in real terms since 2008. In ten years, over £500 million’s worth of origination has evaporated across the system.”

Elstein argues that when drilling down into the key obligations (arts, education, children’s, current affairs, religion and nations and regions) there has been a “wholesale abandonment of key public service genres, other that the BBC’s solitary provision of children’s programming.”

“Across the system, spending on arts and classical music has declined 32 per cent since 1998; while, according to Ofcom, “provision has all but ceased of religion and ethics (down 58 per cent since 1998) and formal education (down 77 per cent since 1998),” says Elstein.

He recognises that there’s plenty to praise in licence fee-funded TV, but compares and contrasts today’s position at ITV with that as recently as the 1990’s. “[Then] ITV broadcast six hours a week of commissioned drama. These days, it averages two hours a week. The ITV news audience has collapsed as a result of the main bulletin being shunted around the schedule for many years.”

“As for regional news and current affairs – which used to be the bedrock of the old federal ITV structure – Ofcom (the media regulator created in 2003) has allowed a substantial reduction in ITV’s provision. The biggest cut came in the wake of the 2008 advertising downturn: but Ofcom, in reluctantly bowing to temporary pressure, was too dozy to require a restoration of the cuts once ITV returned to its prior profitability. ITV now makes profits in excess of £800 million annually: the programming cuts have never been restored.”

But ITV and the BBC are not alone. Elstein looked at the position back in 2004 at Channel 4, still publicly owned (although financed by advertising). He says that in 2004, the Broadcasting Policy Group noted that C4’s “remit of hard quotas included 330 hours a year of schools programmes, 7 hours a week of adult education, 3 hours a week of multi-cultural content, an hour a week of religion, 4 hours a week of current affairs, 4 hours a week of peak-time news, 70 per cent of all output (80 per cent in peak) to be UK origination, 60 per cent of all output (80 per cent in peak) to be first run, and minimum proportions of output to be sourced outside the M25 and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

“Today,” states Elstein, “nearly all those obligations have been abandoned, to be replaced by verbal promises. Multi-cultural has been subsumed into ‘diversity’. Arts programmes – never part of a formal quota, but long a mainstay of Channel 4 schedules – have virtually disappeared.” He adds that today 60 per cent of C4’s schedule is repeats – against an upper limit of 40 percent some 15 years ago.

Elstein warns that it could all get much worse. The BBC (governing) Trust is being replaced, and external regulation will fall to Ofcom. “The BBC has been allowed to keep the licence fee (which we thought should have been progressively replaced by subscription), but there is no guarantee that the fee will survive the technological changes sweeping the industry. It is being asked to be more “distinctive” – just as the BBC Trust repeatedly urged.”

“Public Service Broadcasting continues its steady decline. The issue of that decline has been neither addressed nor analysed. The need for a large, dedicated public service content fund, to be allocated contestably, was urgent in 2004 (and in 2005, when the advisory committee chaired by Lord Burns reached the same conclusion). It is even more urgent now.”

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