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27 November 2014
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Caroline Thomson

Director of Public Policy

The Future of Public Service Broadcasting - An International Perspective

29 January 2002
Printable version

Speech given at the Broadcast Magazine / Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Conference

Good Morning. Can I start by apologising for the fact that I am the wrong Thomson – that is that I am Caroline and not Mark. As some of you will know, Mark decided just before Christmas to migrate from one public service broadcaster to another – from the BBC to Channel Four – and so it has fallen to my lot to try to define the future of public service broadcasting from a BBC perspective – but, as I hope I will make clear, not from an exclusively BBC stance. Public service broadcasting is a broad church and long may it remain so.

However, I have to admit that I approach this subject with, if not a certain wariness, at least a sense of déjà vu. For it is an issue, which we seem to have been debating, off and on, for about half a century. Every so often the cry goes up that PSB has had its day, we all get our thinking caps on from our various different perspectives and after much debate and hand wringing public service broadcasting is determined to have a future and indeed then goes on to flourish. Even within my television lifetime I can remember the Peacock Report, the debates around the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts, BBC Charter Renewal and the Davies report. The depressing fact is that neither the nature of the debate nor the solutions seem to change much. What does seem different is the frequency with which the next debate comes round. I am sure the time lapse between each round is getting shorter.

However, I will admit right away that it ill behoves those of us who are privileged enough to be public service broadcasters to complain. We have wonderful jobs, working in organisations which have preserved positions in the broadcasting spectrum and which in the case of the BBC and Channel Four have the luxury to be able to serve audience interests alone, without needing to worry about shareholders or profits. It is right and proper that our existence should periodically be questioned and debated and those who make policy should indeed be able to assure themselves that we are fulfilling a proper public function in return for our privileges. And it is probably a reflection of our success that our right to exist comes under so much pressure so frequently from some of our commercial colleagues.

Of course in the dim and distant past there WAS a time when things were simple and there was a consensus about our purpose. Reith’s famous mission statement (although of course it wasn’t called that then!) called for the BBC “to inform, educate and entertain” and it is interesting how well that simple trilogy has survived the test of time, enshrined to this day in our Royal Charter. The only phrase which has been equally successful at least in supplementing it is that of Huw Wheldon who defined the purpose of public service broadcasting as being ‘to make the good popular and the popular good’ – although recently various politicians seem to think that this is a definition coined by New Labour!

But while these statements lay out grand objectives, they are pretty short on the specifics of how the BBC would actually deliver that vision to viewers and listeners in practical terms. In the days of spectrum scarcity it was left to the BBC itself to more or less get on with it.

But if that was the deal then, it is not so now.

Now the world is changing so fast that inevitably questions are raised, new definitions are called for. And the truth is, the role of public service broadcasters is simply more difficult to define.

Let’s start with the technological challenges. The changes brought about by digital, the internet, and the technology that now surrounds TV viewing would make a speech in themselves. We still don’t really know the extent of the effect on audience viewing behaviour in the long run but patterns are already changing. Only last week the BBC took advantage of the fact that TV cameras were allowed into the Lockerbie appeal to broadcast and webcast it simultaneously so that people all over the world could watch it. We know that TiVO encourages people to skip ads. E-mail through digital TV is now seen as unsurprising. And look at the explosion of text messaging. The rush to convergence that was foreseen in the early 90’s hasn’t happened quite in the way some pundits predicted – we still by and large have separate screens and machines for different purposes. But we are seeing a flexibility in how people, particularly children, are prepared to receive and manipulate information. 37% of the population regularly use the internet, 36 million people have mobile phones and DVDs are the fastest growing digital product.

Add to this the specific short term difficulties of the last year in the economic environment – global uncertainty and an advertising downturn. Technology alone is making the economics of the TV market wobbly enough – without a recession on top. ITV1 has lost more of its audiences in multi-channel homes than BBC, and this is having a massive effect on advertising revenues. This is not just short term. The fragmenting of the TV audience in the UK where households can potentially access 250 channels makes it permanently more difficult to raise revenue from traditional advertising. This in turn affects programme budgets, makes it harder to take risks, and could result in a homogenous world without diversity and choice for the consumer and dominated by American product. In particular, among the first areas likely to feel the squeeze from commercial pressures are the public service obligations of the commercial PSB providers. Look at the sorry state of ITN for a strong illustration of this. Look also at the provision of local and regional services. Last October, Media Guardian claimed to have seen internal documents that said that 11 ITV franchises would seek to cut their regional output to 8 hours a week – a cut of 50% in some cases. With the current financial pressures on ITV it’s hard not to conclude that the fight is on for the soul of commercially funded public service broadcasting.

Let me be clear. I am a strong supporter of plurality in public service broadcasting. Audiences have clearly benefited from the competition between BBC, ITV and C4 with their different funding and corporate structures. But the impact of technological change and the consequential fragmentation of audiences explains why as I look forward today I am more bullish about the future of publicly funded broadcasting – that is, of the BBC –than I think I would have been some five years ago. Because now we can see how multi channel broadcasting is starting to develop, we can see that there will be a continuing case for market intervention if audiences are to get the range, depth and quality of broadcasting they want.

But for many observers and commentators outside and inside the BBC the case for public service broadcasting needs to be made afresh – a new language has to be found – the simple definitions of the past won’t suffice. So allow me to reflect for a few moments on the values, the essential characteristics of public service broadcasting for the digital age, both in general and for the BBC in particular.

My definition focuses, inevitably and appropriately, on programmes – the funding model may have a bearing on how effectively a public service broadcaster can fulfil its responsibilities, but is not in itself a guarantor of public service performance. In practice, public service broadcasters must be judged by their programmes and services – the way they serve the audiences who pay for them. Their programmes should - most of the time - meet most of the following criteria. You will have heard these or some version of them before, but I believe they bear restatement.

Universality Public Service Broadcasting needs to be universally available, and free at the point of delivery. Universality is, properly understood, not only a technical, but a programme concept - across its channels and services, a public service broadcaster (particularly one financed by a universal licence fee) needs to appeal to all parts of its audience and in these days of subscription television it is more important than ever to entertain, inform and educate everyone including those without the money to pay for subscription services.

Quality Public Service programmes - whatever the genre - should be of the highest quality in terms of concept, acting, scriptwriting, performance and general production values. Even series like Eastenders demonstrate this; UK originated programming made primarily for a UK audience, with high production values, bringing on new writing and acting talent.

Distinctiveness A Public Service broadcaster should amongst other things be supplementing the market, covering areas which straightforward commercial broadcasters would not. But distinctiveness goes beyond narrow market failure. A good public service broadcaster needs to find new genres but also revitalise old ones. They really do still need to make the popular good as well as making the good popular. A good example of the former might be My Family, a critical and audience success firmly in the entertainment genre, attracting nearly 9 million viewers. Making the good popular are programmes like Horizon and Timewatch; and very recently Rolf on Art, which, despite the elitist sniff, brought serious art criticism to audiences of up to 6.8 million on BBC ONE in peak time, a bigger audience than any previous programme about the visual arts.

Range and Diversity Public Service Broadcasting needs to cover the full range of genres - the BBC lists 22 in its annual report - and be diverse in its coverage of them. And it needs to pay careful attention to scheduling, especially news, and to the mix of programmes in peak time. We scheduled a religious documentary, Son of God - the Real Man peaktime on Sunday evenings and it attracted 5.4 million viewers – 21.2% share.

Encouraging Culture and Creativity Public Service Broadcasters should encourage culture in its broadest sense, and provide an important stimulus to creativity in directing, producing, writing, acting and all the performing arts, in the nations and regions as well as within the M25 – taking risks and investing in new content. Above all they should be supporting indigenous talent, whether it be in front of or behind the camera.

Independence and Impartiality In news and current affairs coverage, public service broadcasters should set the highest standards of independence, impartiality, and the redress of complaints. All the UK news organisations can be proud of what they achieved on and immediately after September 11th. It’s why the rest of the world envies us our broadcast journalism.

Supporting National Life and contributing to democratic debate A public service broadcaster should reflect the different parts of the nation to the nation as a whole, and act, in a devolved and multi-cultural United Kingdom, as the bridge that offers everyone a common cultural experience. Whether for September 11th, for elections or for football!

This list of criteria is not exhaustive. But a broadcaster who fails to meet most of them, most of the time, cannot I think legitimately lay claim to the public service title.

However, to my mind nowadays, the challenge for the public service broadcaster is even more complex than the list I have just outlined suggests. Because the nature of our funding IS relevant, and while many of the criteria I have cited would apply just as much to the commercial public broadcasters as to the BBC, for the publicly funded public service broadcaster there is a further wrinkle. If we are to justify a universal licence fee, then we have to show that we are not only universally available, but also widely used. Broadly put, each licence fee payer has to be able to find something in the BBC that will enrich their lives. This can create a tension between the twin tasks of providing the big, rich quality mass appeal programmes for which BBC One is famous – the Only Fools and Horses on Christmas Day with its 73% share – and serving all audiences in an increasingly individualistic and diverse country. For if technology is changing fast, so is the society we live in. Let me pick just two areas to show you what I mean.

First: ethnic minority audiences. Currently, 7% of the UK population belong to an ethnic minority. 80% of them are under the age of 25. The Commission for Racial Equality estimates that in 10 years time, 40% of all under 25s in key urban areas like London and Birmingham will be from an ethnic minority. This audience is not connecting with public service broadcasting and all it can offer with its mix of entertainment, education and information. The BBC and other public service broadcasters need to connect with this audience.

Just how we make that connection is developing all the time. Network X will be a new digital music station dedicated to playing the latest in contemporary black music to a young audience but unlike its commercial counterparts it will have a high speech content – 20% – including its own news service. The Asian Network will go fully networked on digital radio later this year with substantially increased investment; it will carry news and current affairs relevant to the Asian community with a significantly higher speech content (50%) than other commercial Asian stations. We have given commitments to the Secretary of State that our new television channels will also be culturally and geographically diverse, reflecting energy and diversity of multicultural Britain in which we live.

Second: “Young” audiences have become quite a challenge for public service broadcasting over the past 10-15 years. Some 10.3 million homes – getting on for 50% – are now multi channel households – the challenge is to attract and retain young audiences in those homes. The competition for young eyeballs has never been more intense; not just from other TV channels but games, DVDs, mobile entertainment devices of all kinds and of course the internet.

In response the BBC is offering two new children’s channels to be launched in a couple of weeks time. They will be driven by original UK production. No other broadcaster plans to provide this type of quality, interactive, all-round education and entertainment service for children. They will be subscription free - so no child will be deprived. They will offer unique programming like a 3 times daily news service for children. And they will be totally advertising free – and parents won’t find that anywhere on commercial channels.

If we are successful in getting approval for BBC THREE, I believe it will offer something quite unique for young adults in this country. News, current affairs, education, music and the arts will account for over a third of new programming for the channel with dedicated news programmes and bulletins every weekday in peak time. Plus new talent initiatives, online and interactive support (at least 20% of channel output will be supported interactively) and a commitment to focus on reflecting not only every nation and region of the UK but also the multicultural, multiethnic society that is modern Britain. Importantly too we believe a channel like BBC THREE would promote digital take up; 25-34 year olds represent the largest number of unconverted individuals under 65 and more than a third of this group who have not yet switched to digital said that BBC 3 would make them more likely to do so.

There is nothing like BBC THREE currently available to viewers, even if they were able or prepared to pay subscriptions to digital cable or satellite. We need to win British audiences for top quality public service broadcasting throughout their lives. And we need to do this across both these important groups not just because it helps us serve our licence payers. If that was the only argument – self serving as it is – policy makers would be right to query our existence. Bringing audiences to public service broadcasting is not just about viewing – it is also about bringing public service values to those groups. Just two statistics to illustrate the point: fewer 25-34 year olds voted in the last election than votes were cast in Big Brother. 39% of 25-34 year olds left school at 16. I’m old fashioned enough to believe still in the Reithian tradition of attracting audiences with entertainment they want and then surprising them with a programme they would never normally have watched. 25-34 year olds watch 40% less news than the average viewer. At least 90% never watch the news on C4 or C5, the channels you would expect to appeal to them most. Our new services will have news at their heart and it will be news the audience will connect with. The same with education and subjects like the arts and science.

If this is how successfully we will serve the underserved audiences, can we still combine that with offering the big things that pull us all together, our role, through BBC ONE, to provide the ‘gold standard’ of mainstream television?

I firmly believe we can, and we are doing so.

BBC ONE’s success in closing the ratings gap with ITV has been well documented – but for the record, over the last 21 weeks of 2001 BBC ONE beat ITV1 across all hours, with an average audience of 27.4% for BBC ONE and 25.1% for ITV1. It’s the best performance since BARB ratings began in 1981.

However, nice as it is for us to have this endorsement from audiences it is not really the point. For ratings success is relatively easily achieved if you just chase popularity. The question is, can it be done while retaining a distinctive service which meets the set of criteria I outlined at the start of my speech? Let me explain why I believe we are well on the way to succeeding in this delicate balancing act of public service broadcasting.

News and current affairs are fundamental building blocks of any schedule with pretensions to public service broadcasting. The move of the BBC ONE news from nine to ten has halted a long term decline in news audiences across the board. Figures released at the time of the programme’s first anniversary on October 16 show BBC Ten O’Clock News attracting an average audience of 5.0m and it is now the most popular late news bulletin every night of the week. Combined audiences for late evening news on BBC ONE and ITV1 are up nearly a million on a year ago. And on the Current Affairs front, it is notable that the 7 editions of Panorama since September 11th have averaged 3.7m viewers, up 9% on last year – the Afghanistan programme on October 7th attracted 5.5m (34%) while a Panorama Jeffrey Archer special (19/07) got 24% share at 9pm on Thursday.

It is worth remembering that on 11 September, 33m people - 52% of the UK population - turned to BBC TV News.

Landmark programming - The BBC can still unify audiences with quality, landmark PSB offerings. An oft quoted example but I make no apology for referring to it again – Blue Planet – shown at 9 o’clock on a Wednesday BBC ONE, attracted 31% share. Five years in the making, exploring areas and discovering creatures never seen before, at a cost of £7million and 12 million people watched the first episode alone. Without PSB, this kind of programming would almost certainly disappear. The commitments in time and money, training and building expertise to make the programme and make it live for audiences are only possible because we can invest regardless of the commercial return.

And the BBC is in the privileged position where it can afford to innovate. Walking with Beasts this November took audiences of up to 9.2m, and also reached over 1 million viewers with the interactive element of the programming.

And of course all of this programming is for everyone, not just those who can pay. We are producing “traditional” PSB programming on our mainstream channel in ways that engage audiences more than ever before. People often talk about a “golden age of public service broadcasting” – why is it the past always looks so golden? – Looking at the facts I’m not so sure. Civilisation is an often quoted example. It was shown on BBC2 on Sundays at 8.15pm, when there were only 3 channels, and was watched by 900,000 viewers – History of Britain (BBC 2, Wednesday, c. 8pm, against 4 other channels) was watched by 3.9 million. On BBC ONE The Forsyte Saga’s (1967) highest audience was 7 million – Wives and Daughters (1999) was seen by 9.4 million (average); and The Way We Live Now (2001) got 6.4 million for its first episode. What we do now easily bears comparison with the past in quality and quantity.

However, our commitment to excellence on BBC ONE is not just defined by these big landmarks, important as they are. Alongside them, often unheralded, go our regular commitments to science (Tomorrows World, Horizon, Gene Story), consumer affairs (Watchdog, Watchdog Healthcheck, Holiday) and quality original drama and series (Love in a Cold Climate, Messiah, EastEnders, Casualty, Holby, Clocking Off).

No one, least of all within the BBC, would argue that BBC ONE is perfect. It still has some way to go to correct the problems caused by some years of underinvestment. And, for example, our record on the arts while nothing like as bad as our critics would have you believe, is not as strong as it could be. Nonetheless the record of programmes above and the way it is scheduled is something of which I believe we can be justifiably proud as keeping us balanced on the tightrope delivering both distinctiveness and popularity and thus – crucially – providing the national gold standard of broadcasting.

So let me recap where I’ve got to. In order to flourish the public service broadcasters have to accept a more complex set of criteria against which they will be judged and for the publicly funded section of public service broadcasting, the additional challenge is how to serve all audience needs while not abandoning the key national role.

But what of policy makers, if they believe public service broadcasting is something worth preserving – and in the end in the UK politicians of all parties have always come to that conclusion – what do they need to do to ensure its continued role in the ecology of broadcasting?

Well, if the business of running a PSB has become more complex in the last two decade, so has the business of regulating them. I believe that three things are essential if PSBs in this and other countries are not to ossify:

We must try to ensure a plural public service offering for as long as possible. A BBC monopoly would not serve the interests of the audience.
In order to ensure this the PSB model must be allowed to evolve and regulatory structures should reflect this.
Finally, we need to accept that universal access for audiences to public services through all the new technologies is an issue which cannot be left to the market.

The most crucial issue is that public service broadcasting must be allowed to evolve both in programming and in regulation. The BBC has always dedicated itself to serving audiences and the public interest through new communications systems – whether it was harnessing short wave to broadcast round the world in 1933 or developing the first television services during the 30’s and 40’s or promoting colour television in the 60’s. Our core purpose remains constant but as new devices and delivery systems have emerged which allow us to do what we have always done, in new ways, we have a responsibility to keep up with these changes and use them. Today’s new technologies can be harnessed strongly to our core public purpose making for much more effective delivery of the old values, and helping to introduce some new ones.

Such evolution in the BBC has always produced loud protests. You soon learn at the BBC that if you win, you lose and if you lose, you lose. If we’re bringing in the big audiences it’s because we’ve lost our soul and are dumbing down, we are not fulfilling our public service remit, we should only focus only making things that the market will not cater for. If we keep on “winning” our source of funding comes under fire. But if we lose viewing, we’re no longer “relevant to everyone” and – guess what – our source of funding comes under fire. The BBC isn’t dumbing down, it’s moving on. Change does not mean dumbing down. It’s a hackneyed, lazy phrase. We like others must change and must be allowed to change to reflect our audience and market place; and if we hold to the principles I laid out at the beginning, no-one need fear that we are abandoning public service values.

However, we do not want to be a monopoly. C4 is a very welcome stablemate and we look forward to it thriving as the other Thompson takes over. Its fresh and innovative approach to the evening news bulletin challenged the other broadcasters when it began. It has played a major part in revitalising the History genre (David Starkey). It brought us Big Brother. New talent like Graham Norton. Fresh thinking on cricket coverage that the fans love. And its work with the film industry has been second to none.

But we need ITV too. There is life in the commercial public service broadcasting model yet. Ten days ago ITV showed Bloody Sunday, a marvellous example of the public service broadcasting tradition from Granada. But the commercial pressures are increasingly obvious, for example in the way the late evening news moves around the schedule. To allow ITV to flourish, we must allow it to be profitable while recognising its public service obligation. Its own balancing act. For this, we must get regulation right. The White Paper move towards self-regulation on the ITV remit, through statements of programme policy, must be right in allowing the real evolution of public service provision. But we also need to allow mergers, so that a strong ITV company can emerge, capable of really taking on the market.

Finally; although we believe we are doing what audiences want through our new services including channels and individual interactive programmes, the biggest challenge we face in the digital world is getting our content to the universal audience it's made for.

In the past, once content was made for broadcast, every potential user could get to it simply by virtue of having a set and an aerial. Now we have to negotiate with each platform operator, in respect of each delivery system, for each service we want to offer, to make it available, and findable for audiences, often in competition with the platform operator’s own content.

Ensuring that new services are accessible to all viewers is a great challenge for regulators as well as broadcasters. National Governments and the EU (through the Communications Review) have a difficult task. They have to balance legitimate expectations of returns by private investors and the public interest of universal access and extended choice for viewers/citizens. It is a complex exercise, but the guiding principles are simple:

1. Universally funded services have got to be universally available. No individual platform will reach 100% of viewers in the digital world, so publicly funded services will only reach all those that pay for them if they are available on all platforms. Must-carry provisions must apply equally to all delivery systems.

2. Vertically integrated companies shouldn’t be able to exercise their power to prevent competitors from getting access to viewers. EU and national regulation must ensure that access to gateways – all gateways, from CA systems to APIs and EPGs – is open on fair terms to all.

3. As broadcasting technology develops the aim should be to follow the model of mobile phone technology – that is, open standards and interoperability – not parallel proprietary systems.

The good news is that much of this regulatory challenge is recognised by Government and that the signs through the White Paper are that their thinking is moving very much in the right direction.

I hope that alongside these moves by government, I have demonstrated today that public service broadcasters themselves are also recognising the need for change, evolving their service and their remit to adapt to changing technological opportunities and changing audience needs so that public service broadcasting will have not just a viable, but a flourishing, future.

At the end, let’s not forget about great programmes which delight people and enrich their lives.


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