UK broadcast regulator Ofcom is recommending a radical overhaul of laws to ensure that public service media survives and thrives in the digital age.
Its recommendations to Government mark the conclusion of Small Screen: Big Debate – an in-depth review on the future of public service media (PSM). The report calls for the renewal of the PSM system to ensure it can flourish for the next decade and beyond.
During the course of the review, Ofcom spoke to audiences of all ages and backgrounds right across the UK, and met with broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts at home and abroad. Its consultation received over 100 responses, with consensus on two fundamental issues – the importance of PSM for UK viewers, and the urgent need to update the system to ensure its future sustainability.
Public service content matters to people and society… but it’s under increasing threat
Ofcom’s review makes clear that public service programming remains highly valued by UK audiences, and the pandemic has only served to reinforce its role in society.
Its research findings emphasise the special importance viewers place on high-quality, trusted and accurate news. It reveals a passion for soaps, drama and live sports, which bring us together, as well as programmes which reflect the diversity of the UK’s nations and regions. Public Service Media is also central to the UK creative economy, with around £3 billion spent each year on new commissions across a broad range of genres.
Between 2015 and 2020, broadcast viewing dropped by 24 minutes per person each day. Sixty per cent of all UK households subscribed to an on-demand service by September 2020. Forty-seven per cent of adults use online services as their main way of watching TV and films, rising to two-thirds among 18-24 year-olds.
But, with global competition intensifying, viewers are no longer bound by television schedules and are able to pick and choose content from a range of online providers and platforms. Given these changes, the UK’s broadcasting industry is facing its greatest challenge.
A step-change in broadcasters’ digital plans – and an overhaul of legislation
To secure the future of PSM, Ofcom says that broadcasters must accelerate their digital plans if they are to maintain a strong link with audiences, and the regulatory system also needs to be urgently updated.
Accordingly, it is recommending that the Government brings forward primary legislation to:
Transform and collaborate to compete
Legislative change to the existing framework alone is not likely to be enough to preserve the vital benefits of public service media; further radical approaches are required, says Ofcom:
“Our creative sector is the envy of the world, but public service media is facing a triple threat – from large global players, viewers turning towards online services, and increasing funding pressures,” warns Dame Melanie Dawes, Chief Executive, Ofcom. “If we’re to preserve public service media and its outstanding content for future generations, change needs to happen – and fast.”
“That’s why we’re recommending the biggest shake-up to public service broadcasting in twenty years. Our plan of action sets out how the industry, Government and Ofcom can together build a stronger system of public service media that can thrive in the digital age,” she concludes.