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Ensuring prominence for public service content as media converges

John Tate

Director, Policy and Strategy

A report published today by Communications Chambers tackles the thorny question of how public service broadcasting (PSB) can continue to remain prominent when media consumption is changing and converging so rapidly. The report – ‘PSB Prominence in a Converged Media World’ – forms part of the BBC’s contribution to the Government’s review of communications legislation.  

While high quality content is the best protection of any broadcaster’s prominence, successive Governments have supported this with regulatory protection for the prominence of PSB – an approach fully in line with audiences’ expectations, according to survey data. To ensure that the main PSB channels are universally available and easy to discover they must be given ‘appropriate prominence’ in electronic programme guides (EPGs) on all digital television platforms across the UK.

The protection of ‘due prominence’ in this way is now ten years old. With technology developments including the arrival of internet-connected TV, we are seeing the proliferation of new platforms and types of content guides. Some are likely to become important gateways through which people find content. As part of the Communications Review, The Department of Culture, Media & Sport invited views on the implications for PSB prominence, acknowledging that ‘as quality UK content continues to be strongly valued by the public it is important to ensure that it is easily available to consumers even if the platform they choose does not use a conventional EPG’.

We asked the media strategy firm Communications Chambers to consider whether the prominence rules need updating to continue to support universal access to the social and cultural benefits of PSB and, if so, what regulatory approach policy makers should consider.

The report that Communications Chambers produced found that safeguarding the prominence for public service programming is more important than ever.

The report identifies three key risks to PSB prominence:

  1. Commercial priorities for those providers offering new ways to access content, or ‘gateways’, colliding with the civic interest in achieving high reach for PSB
  2. Control of content discovery transferring from broadcasters to platform providers
  3. ‘Shelf space’ on menus for on-demand services being limited and filled by targeted services that can compete commercially for slots against PSB services of wider appeal (the BBC being unable to enter into exclusive deals with gateways to secure prominence for its public service content or services).

In response to such pressures, Robin Foster of Communications Chambers argues that the prominence rules should be updated so that  the scope of prominence requirements apply to all ‘content gateways’ including ‘broadcast and IPTV platforms as well as connected-TVs and other device-based gateways’, and to PSBs’ on-demand content as well as their broadcast services.

Importantly, prominence requirements would – on Foster’s argument – be triggered only if a gateway became a significant means of accessing audio-visual content. Thus the requirement would be targeted and proportionate so as not to interfere with platform innovation. This approach could in turn be subject to regular review by Ofcom.

Communications Chambers also recommends that any European media legislation should also recognise the importance of public service broadcasting and prominence. This would help address gateway providers based outside the UK but whose services are received here.

Recent research suggests that audiences would agree with Robin Foster’s conclusions. Recent YouGov research, for example, found that smart-TV viewers expect PSB catch-up services like the iPlayer to be displayed at the top of on-demand menus. For this reason at others, the BBC welcomes this report as a considered and practical approach to a pressing question: how to ensure that all audiences can continue to discover great public service content for decades to come.

John Tate is the BBC’s Director of Policy & Strategy

PSB Prominence in a Converged Media World’ is available via the Inside the BBC website.

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