It's time to ensure a golden age of television can be a good thing for British culture too
Director, Radio & Education
It’s often said we live in a golden age of television: a time where the choice is immense and quality is incomparable. And when you look back at the last year alone, it’s difficult to disagree.
Planet Earth II was breathtaking; dramas from Line of Duty to The Night Manager and Poldark gripped audiences; family favourites like Strictly and Bake Off continued to set the conversation in workplaces and homes around the country.
And that was just on the BBC. The standard elsewhere was high too – whether it’s Game of Thrones and Westworld on Sky, ITV’s Victoria, Stranger Things on Netflix, or the great job Channel 4 did bringing the Paralympics to a mass audience once more. Together it shows that the UK’s broadcasting industry is the envy of the world – with public service broadcasting at its heart.
But for all the choice, there’s a real threat. And if we’re not careful, we could be at risk of losing something vital to our British identity.
Despite our growing choice in programmes, spending on British television programmes has actually fallen. The world’s biggest media companies are American. Netflix and Amazon Video are focused on global content and have so far only made a handful of programmes that reflect British society.
It’s the BBC and other public service broadcasters who stake a flag in the ground for Britain. But that only works if we make sure audiences can find this British content – making us part of a shared culture, telling stories about the whole country, and representing everyone.
Fourteen years ago, Parliament took a far-sighted decision. It insisted that the public service TV channels including BBC One, ITV and Channel 4 should be at the top of the programme guides on all TV platforms. It made our channels easy to find – especially important for the BBC, whose programmes people have already paid for via their licence fee.
But the world has changed, with the rapid growth of digital channels and new services. In channel listings on the UK’s leading pay TV platform, Sky, the BBC’s children’s channels, CBeebies and CBBC – where parents can rely on their children watching safe, trusted, educational, British programmes without adverts – are below 12 US cartoon networks.
Moreover, the new generation of set-top boxes from which many people get their television have a limited number of content options on their Home pages. If those places are filled by content from the platform owners like Sky, or from Netflix, Amazon or YouTube, that leaves little room for the on-demand services from our public service broadcasters such as All 4, ITV Hub, or our own iPlayer, for which there is currently no requirement of prominence.
Some pay-TV platforms are already making “free to air” services harder to find. On the new Sky box, Sky Q, there is no one button on the remote control that takes you to live TV, the single most popular thing Sky customers do. Instead, “Home” takes you to Top Picks – a set of recommended programmes chosen by Sky. There’s no point being top of the programme guide if it’s difficult to find the guide. And recent industry analysis suggests that up to 77 per cent of the content promoted on Top Picks is from Sky.
If we don’t update the rules, we’re at serious risk of losing something very special about our British culture. It’s not just the BBC that is worried about this – ITV, Channel 4 and the House of Lords Communications Committee have all said it’s time for change as well. And audiences overwhelmingly agree – our research shows support for ensuring prominence for public service content is as strong as ever.
This isn’t about forcing people to watch public service programmes, or stopping anyone watching American shows we all love. It is about making sure you can find them easily.
This week the House of Lords will debate measures that could tackle this problem. It would mean on-demand players like iPlayer being guaranteed prominence on all major TV platforms, CBBC and Cbeebies being moved up the list where children and parents expect to find them, and clearer powers for Ofcom to ensure the rules are observed.
Sensible action now can help preserve something very special, ensuring a golden age of television can be a good thing for British culture too.
This post was first published in The Daily Telegraph
James Purnell is Director, Radio & Education