Advanced Television

Ofcom calls for UK broadcasting laws overhaul

December 8, 2020

By Colin Mann

Traditional UK broadcasting is unlikely to survive in the online world, unless broadcasting laws and regulation are overhauled and broadcasters speed up their transformation for the digital age, concludes regulator Ofcom in its Small Screen: Big Debate review of public service broadcasting (PSB).

Ofcom is looking at how to strengthen and maintain PSB for the next decade and beyond, in the face of unprecedented changes to technology, financing and viewer behaviour.

it spoke to audiences of all ages and backgrounds right across the UK. It has also met broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts in the UK and abroad.

Among the review’s main findings.

A valued institution facing critical challenges

  • Public service content still matters hugely to people and society. People identify trusted, accurate news as the most important aspect of public service media. More than seven in 10 viewers say regional news is important to them. All viewers value PSBs’ ability to bring society together, through coverage of events and programmes watched by millions, and they value content made about the UK, and take pride in seeing their own area represented on screen.Audiences also value public-service content that they are unlikely to find elsewhere. Beyond the PSBs, few broadcasters provide original UK children’s,  education and religious programming, made specifically for the UK.
  • Public service broadcasters underpin the UK’s creative economy. PSBs spend nearly £3 billion each year, ensuring the continued strength of the UK production sector, which is recognised and admired globally. The system supports a highly skilled workforce and helps develop new talent, allowing successful businesses to grow.
  • But public service broadcasting is at a critical juncture. Audiences are increasingly turning away from the traditional PSB channels – the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 – in favour of global streaming and online services. Last year, only 38 per cent of 16-34s’ viewing (and 67 per cent among all adults) was of traditional broadcast content. One in four viewers of streaming services say they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.

A vision for the future

To help preserve the vital benefits of public service broadcasting, Ofcom has drawn on a wealth of research and evidence to identify how PSBs can stay relevant and reach everyone in future.

  • Laws and regulation must be overhauled. The rules and laws around public service broadcasting largely date from when the internet was still in its infancy – and they remain focused on traditional broadcasting. Without radical changes to support PSBs’ shift from traditional broadcasting to online, the challenges facing them may become acute.Ofcom is calling for a new framework to establish clear goals for public service broadcasters, with greater choice over how they achieve them, and quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news. Companies should be required to set out, measure and report on their plans, with Ofcom holding them to account.Ofcom is also inviting views on changes to rules that will ensure PSB content is carried on different online platforms. In the New Year it will launch a review of how the UK production industry operates.
  • Other companies could become public-service media providers. Alongside the content provided by existing PSBs, new providers could help deliver public-service media in future.This new content could focus on specific groups of people or types of programme. New providers could offer different skills, expertise and online experience – leading to wider benefits to audiences and the economy.
  • A new model for stable funding. Given funding pressures, public service media needs stable revenues to support creative risk-taking, innovation and efficient long-term planning. Public funding decisions are a matter for Government, so we have set out a range of options, including international comparisons, outlining the benefits and drawbacks. These include full or part subscription models. There is also potential for cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local news.
  • Partnerships could help PSBs to compete – as well as connect with audiences. Deeper relationships between PSBs and other companies – particularly on platforms and distribution – could help them compete more effectively with global players, and reach wider audiences. Shared research and development, performance data and back-office activities could also reduce costs, improve efficiencies and aid innovation.

“Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world,” asserts Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive. “But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.”

“For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules, and build a stronger system of public-service media that can flourish in the digital age.”

“That could mean big changes, such as a wider range of firms tasked with providing high-quality shows made for, in and about the UK,” she suggests.


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