Ofcom calls for stronger public service media

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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:

  • Modernise the PSM objectives. New legislation should secure and strengthen PSM’s most important features: a broad range of programming that reflects all parts of the UK, and the ability to engage the widest possible audiences. There should also be a new objective to support the UK’s creative economy.
  • Update availability and prominence rules to include digital platforms. Broadcasters and connected TV platforms are struggling to reach commercial agreements, meaning it’s harder for audiences to find PSM content on digital platforms than on traditional TV. So new rules are needed to require PSM providers to offer their on-demand services to popular TV platforms. In turn, platforms should be required to include and give appropriate prominence to PSM content. Ofcom should be given monitoring and enforcement powers, including the ability to resolve commercial disputes.
  • Update production rules for PSM content. If PSM providers are to reach all audiences, they need to be able to commission content which they can deliver flexibly – both online and on broadcast TV. So Ofcom recommends that commissioning rules designed to support independent productions should apply to all PSM content, regardless of whether it is commissioned for broadcast TV or online. This would include programmes exclusively shown on online services.
  • Update the rules for PSM providers. Broadcast licences need modernising to cover content produced across broadcast TV and online. PSM providers should also be afforded flexibility to innovate and respond to technological and market changes. Quotas should remain to secure important PSM programming, like news, and to safeguard the quality of traditional broadcast TV for those audiences who continue to rely on them. PSM providers should be required to set out clear plans to deliver against their objectives and report annually on their performance, with Ofcom holding them to account.

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:

  • PSM providers must forge more ambitious strategic partnerships. 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. Channel 4 and Sky, for example, have recently expanded their existing partnership to cover content, technology and innovation.
  • Other companies should be encouraged to produce PSM programming. The Government should consider how to encourage new providers to help deliver public service media in future. That could mean harnessing the broad range of high-quality, UK-based original news, drama and arts programming offered by existing commercial providers, such as Sky and Discovery. Or encouraging new providers of PSM or PSM-like content – for example on social media platforms – to target audiences who don’t connect with broadcasters on traditional TV platforms. Updated legislation should allow for complementary PSM providers to be added to the regulatory framework to maximise flexibility into the future.
  • Economic incentives to broaden PSM provision. The Government should assess the case for financial support to add value for audiences in certain areas – such as regional programming. This could be done through a range of incentives such as contestable funding or tax relief.

“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.


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