UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has confirmed that negotiations over the level of the next BBC licence fee are getting under way and that he has assembled a panel of broadcasting and tech experts to help shape the future of public broadcasting.
Writing an opinion piece in UK daily The Telegraph, Dowden says the BBC has been a steadfast national institution, a champion of British values across the globe. “But 100 years on, it’s time to ask what we want from the BBC of the future,” he declares.
“The pandemic has illustrated what the BBC does best. It has helped us educate our children, and been a trusted source of information on the virus. And it has provided a national gathering place for millions tuning in to hear government updates or watch the first live Premier League game on the BBC,” he says.
“But while Covid has brought out the best in the BBC, that hasn’t made it immune to some stark realities,” he suggests. “The first is the utter transformation of the media landscape. The rise of Netflix, Amazon Prime and others has lobbed a grenade into the system – upending the way most of us consume our favourite shows.”
“The second is the growing number of questions the BBC faces over some of its key commitments. Is the Beeb continuing to deliver value for money for licence-fee payers? Is it keeping the British public’s confidence when it comes to its impartiality, and does it truly represent the nation,” he asks.
“By the latter, I mean the entire nation,” he asserts. “Someone switching on their TV from their semi in Bradford should feel just as represented by the Beeb as a person watching in their Islington townhouse. Instead, a growing number of viewers feel harangued or ignored when they tune in – and not just by the news output, but by its drama and comedy too,” he contends.
“So, as negotiations over the level of the next licence fee kick off, I have formally written to the BBC asking them for answers to six key questions,” he advises. “Those include: how will it make savings, including around talent pay levels? How will the next licence-fee level affect the vulnerable, the elderly, and those on the lowest incomes? And how will it use its global might to fly the flag for Britain,” he adds.
“However, the BBC is just one piece of a bigger puzzle,” he observes. “The world has changed, and every broadcaster needs to change with it. So I’m taking a close look at the future of our entire public service broadcasting system. That includes ITV and Channels 4 and 5 – and S4C in Wales and STV in Scotland, both of which are important to those nations,” he says.
Today I am pulling together a team of broadcasting and tech heavyweights to help us shape the future of public broadcasting. This 10-strong panel won’t just be tiptoeing around the edges. They have been tasked with asking really profound questions about the role these broadcasters have to play in the digital age – and indeed whether we need them at all. It is a crucial task, given how central public service broadcasters are to our entire creative ecosystem,” he states.
Together, they employ more than 20,000 staff, and indirectly support the employment of tens of thousands more. They helped drive £3.3 billion in revenue last year, and they beam the best of Britain – our culture, our talent, our castles, churches and more – into homes around the world,” he reports.
“We’ve got to get this right. Public service broadcasting has already lived, adapted and thrived through a hundred years of history. It’s time to start thinking about what it does next,” he concludes.
A BBC spokesman said: “The past few months have served as a powerful reminder of just how much the BBC matters locally, nationally and globally. Our programmes and services have never been more relevant, important or necessary.”
“The BBC is committed to delivering great value. We are the number one media provider in the UK reaching 91 per cent of adults and 80 per cent of young people a week. And while the world is changing swiftly, so is the BBC. We will continue to innovate, adapt and lead change.”
“We welcome the government’s commitment to conducting an open and transparent process. We look forward to working with Government to secure the right funding settlement for the BBC and its audiences.
In a notice from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Dowden said: “Public service broadcasting is woven into the cultural fabric of the UK, but to remain relevant and meet people’s needs in the digital age it must evolve. We are today taking a step forward in our roadmap for reform of the BBC and beginning negotiations to agree the cost of a TV licence from 2022 so that it offers fee payers the best value for money. We are also bringing together experts from the media and tech industries to help shape the future of the public broadcasting system and explore the reforms needed to make sure it is modern, sustainable and successful.”
The PSB Advisory Panel will advise ministers on whether public service broadcasting remains relevant and what a modern PSB system should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life across the UK. It will explore if current funding and governance models are fit for purpose.
The panel will also support the government in considering the issues raised and recommendations resulting from Ofcom’s ongoing PSB Review.
Panellists will be expected to look at the impact of technology on audience habits and expectations as well as the financial sustainability of broadcasters and the overall structure of the TV market. This will include things such as video streaming.
The Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel includes former Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade, Facebook’s Vice President for Europe Nicola Mendelsohn, and former senior executives of Sky, ITN and Endemol Shine.
Grade said: “Our public service broadcasting remit has served the nation well for over 80 years but the time has come to review its relevance for the digital age and maybe redefine it.”
The panel will not consider or advise on the TV licence fee settlement process, which the government expects to conclude by the autumn of 2021. The new licence fee settlement will take effect from 01 April 2022.
Reflecting the government’s priorities, the Culture Secretary has written to the BBC asking it to set out how it will maximise its commercial revenues and continue to deliver savings. He has also asked the BBC to include details of any further plans to support those in vulnerable groups, including the elderly.
The full membership of the panel is: