Advanced Television

Ofcom sets out PSB future

July 4, 2019

By Colin Mann

UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom has announced a range of measures to ensure that public service broadcasters (PSBs) continue to deliver high-quality content for UK viewers and listeners.

According to the watchdog, public service broadcasting is now at a crucial juncture, as broadcasters face unprecedented competition from global on-demand and Internet services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.

Ofcom is accordingly setting out a package of measures, including recommendations to Government, to support PSB now and in the years ahead. Ofcom is:

  • updating rules that ensure traditional PSB TV channels are prominent and easy to find within programme guides;
  • making recommendations to Government for new legislation to help ensure PSB programmes and players are also clearly visible on Internet-connected devices, such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks;
  • endorsing a range of commitments by ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to increase their focus on high-quality children’s programmes; and
  • launching Small Screen: Big Debate – a national forum to discuss the future of public service broadcasting on TV and online. This will call for Parliament, regulators, broadcasters and viewers to be involved in developing a new framework for public service media in future.

“Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world. But they’re facing unprecedented challenges from competition and new technology,” noted Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Content and Media Policy. “So we are ensuring their channels remain easy to find on TV guides, and convening a national debate on the future of public service media – including how we safeguard its benefits for future generations.”

Ensuring PSB programmes remain visible

First, Ofcom has updated rules that ensure traditional PSB TV channels are prominent and easy to find within on-screen programme guides. This will safeguard the positions of BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5. Ofcom is also setting minimum levels of prominence for other BBC channels – such as CBeebies and BBC News – and local TV services.

Currently, Ofcom cannot extend ‘prominence’ rules to television delivered via the Internet. Parliament would need to introduce new legislation to extend regulation to online platforms and services.

So Ofcom is also today recommending to Government that new rules are established to ensure that PSB content is clearly visible on major viewing platforms, such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks.

In order to qualify under the recommended new prominence rules, broadcasters’ on-demand services would need to deliver an appropriate range of high-quality PSB content. This might include requirements around particular genres, such as children’s, current affairs and factual content, and programmes made specifically for UK viewers.

Quality programmes for children and teenagers

Ofcom has also been working to ensure that public service broadcasters provide a range of high-quality and original content for children. It has identified a need for more of these programmes, particularly for older children – and for more shows that help children understand the world, and reflect their diverse lives on screen.

In 2018, Ofcom asked ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to respond with plans for how they would improve their provision for children on TV and online. These broadcasters have now committed to creating and investing more in original UK programmes made just for children and teenagers, including live action, entertainment and news. As a result:

  • ITV will increase the budget of CITV by almost 10 per cent, to fund more original commissions for 6-12 year olds, and develop a new online news and current-affairs offering for 12-15s;
  • Channel 4 will develop a new digital-first service for 13-16 year olds. This will focus on a new YouTube channel and include new commissions especially for teenagers; and
  • Channel 5 will double the budget for its Milkshake children’s output, and increase its original programme hours from 29 to 50 annually by 2021.

These combined commitments are a positive response to Ofcom’s concerns. We will monitor broadcasters’ implementation of their plans and continue to work with industry to ensure children and teenagers enjoy a range of high-quality programmes from the PSBs.

Small Screen: Big Debate

More broadly, Ofcom believes the time is right for national debate on future of PSB. So it is launching a nationwide forum called Small Screen: Big Debate.

This will involve a series of discussions with broadcasters, production companies, government, Parliament, industry bodies, viewers’ groups and national and regional representatives on the wider questions around sustaining PSB in future. Ofcom will also examine the views of television viewers across the country through a series of focus groups. Ofcom aims to play a central role in driving this discussion, drawing on a range of views, evidence and research.

Given the pace of change in television viewing habits, technology and competition, the debate will need to address questions such where PSB content should be available in future; who should provide it; and how to guarantee a mix of high-quality UK content online.

By the end of 2019, Ofcom will publish its assessment of the state of PSB, and how it has performed over the period 2014 to 2018. It will bring together evidence not only about the main PSB services, but also the range of media services – television, radio, online and elsewhere – available to people in the UK. This will provide it with evidence on PSBs’ performance, and help it identify areas of risk and potential opportunities to be investigated more closely.

Ofcom has also published a revised list of TV channels that are free to view and widely available. Parliament has set rules to ensure that certain events of particular national interest, are available to view live, and for free, by the widest possible audience. The list of events is set by the Secretary of State and currently includes major sporting contests, including the World Cup Final and Wimbledon.

Ofcom’s role is to maintain a list of TV services that are free to view and widely available. It has confirmed that a service only qualifies if it is freely available on satellite and cable, can be viewed by all digital-terrestrial TV viewers, and is reliably streamed live on Internet TV. The services meeting these conditions are: BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Four, CBBC, CBeebies, BBC News, BBC Parliament, Channel 3 Network (broadcast as ITV, STV and UTV), ITV2, ITV3, ITV4, Channel 4, More 4 and Film 4.

In a joint statement, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, S4C and STV said they welcomed Ofcom’s recommendations which the said would give British public service content prominence in the era of on-demand and iInternet TV viewing.

“As public service broadcasters we are committed to giving audiences the best British programmes and impartial and trusted news. Viewers say they value our content and want to be able to find it easily.

“These recommendations would ensure viewers can easily find public service broadcasting (PSB) content across a range of devices including smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks, and bring the rules up to date for the digital age.

“Rapid changes in technology and how we watch TV mean the flexible framework recommended – so the new rules can quickly be adapted to changes in technology and viewer behaviour – is also warmly welcomed.

“The proposals will require primary legislation so over the summer we will be working closely with Ofcom, DCMS and Parliamentarians on next steps. We hope this can happen quickly,” they concluded.

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