The Future of Public Service Broadcasting - An International Perspective
given at the Broadcast Magazine / Commonwealth Broadcasting Association
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. Reiths famous mission statement
(although of course it wasnt 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.
Lets 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 dont 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
90s hasnt 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 its
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 wont 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.
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.
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. Its why the
rest of the world envies us our broadcast journalism.
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
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.
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 childrens 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 wont find that anywhere on
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. Im 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 ONEs 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. Its the best performance since BARB ratings began
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 programmes first anniversary
on October 16 show BBC Ten OClock 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.
- 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 oclock 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 Im 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 Sagas (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
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
So let me recap where
Ive 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 30s and 40s or promoting colour television in the 60s.
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.
Todays 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 were bringing
in the big audiences its because weve 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, were no longer relevant to
everyone and guess what our source of funding comes
under fire. The BBC isnt dumbing down, its moving on. Change
does not mean dumbing down. Its 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 operators 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
2. Vertically integrated
companies shouldnt 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
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, lets
not forget about great programmes which delight people and enrich their