Putting Viewers Somewhere: Part 1

Part 1: (Thursday) General
Part 2 (Friday): Regional/local broadcasting
Part 3 (Monday): Looking forward to Digital Britain

This is the little moment of (relative) peace and quiet in between two major publications relating to public service broadcasting in the UK. The first is specifically about PSB, and comes from regulator Ofcom, and was published on Wednesday. There’s a snappy summary here. Ofcom has completed ‘phase 2’ of its PSB review, and issued a detailed report, Putting Viewers First, regarding the long term future for public service broadcasting (TV) in the UK. It also set out some short-term decisions, which, in essence, allow ITV franchisees to do some further scaling back on non-national content (I didn’t think that was possible, but apparently it is. Good thing we’ve got the ever-doomed local newspapers and the BBC’s expanding local services to fall back on). Lots to read here and the report is going to keep all of us busy for some time. One of the highlights of the process has been the PSB blog, which brought together a lot of interesting comments and links, including controversial and off-message ones. Hopefully that will be used in the future. The index of all the relevant documents can be found right here.

So as I say, it’s all quite interesting, but Ofcom’s work may well be overshadowed by the publication of Digital Britain next week (steered by former Ofcom chief exec Stephen Carter with help from a who’s who of report writers!), which is a report to Government prepared by a steering group. I’m not too uncomfortable about that though, as Ofcom’s report would, in reality, require a significant revision of the relevant areas of the Communications Act and various other broadcasting statutes – and having this process taken seriously by Government is not just more likely to succeed, but carries with it appropriate legitimacy (with a parliamentary process somewhat more democratic than the type of opinion polling that Ofcom is increasingly favouring). Of course, Ofcom has a statutory mandate (section 264 Communications Act 2003) to carry out this review and has carried out its job diligently – but the focus of discussion and consultation should, in my view, now shift to elected representatives and central government.

I’ve found quite a few interesting references to online delivery scattered throughout the report (and I love these slides – although I don’t think any major conclusions are drawn from it, other than a general point that online public service content is A Good Thing but not The Alternative. Just as a sidenote, it’s quite intriguing to see the shift in the report from talking about public service broadcasting to public service content – in some chapters. This is worth welcoming (in that it recognises that ‘content’ deserves a public service element), but only in part – a focus on content alone disregards the total package of media, which (whether traditional, linear, CRT ‘broadcasting’ or anything else) is more than the accumulated ‘content’, considering things like governance, cultural activities, IP, advertising systems, access policies, etc. .

There’s also a stream of interesting comments summarised in the Responses document (at 2.185-2.190) in relation to language issues, particularly Irish (and Ulster-Scots) in Northern Ireland. Again I’m not sure how well placed Ofcom is to deal with this, but it will be interesting to watch that particular situation develop. Ofcom’s response is a not-very-illuminating ‘we do recommend that further consideration be given to appropriate delivery of indigenous language broadcasting services across the UK.’

I’m deliberately not getting into the ‘future of Channel 4’ thing for now, as everyone else is doing that. Let’s look at something more audacious, the ITV requests for (in essence) radical deregulation of the Channel 3 service. What ITV’s asking for is, even to my cynical eyes, quite astonishing. ITV ask for virtually all aspects of its regulation to be substantially relaxed or removed entirely, in return for not handing back its licence. It’s hard to respond to that, really. It is a most remarkable shopping list, including everything from reducing current affairs quotas to allowing product placement. Much of this is outside of Ofcom’s powers, and that is clearly pointed out, but it is decided, provisionally, to allow a range of reductions related to regional news and current affairs – and this is a good example of where the ‘audience research’ starts to fall apart, as it’s in direct contradiction to the preferences expressed through the survey results. More on that in the next post, though let’s not forget that ITV is already disobeying the rules and being fined for it. Hmmm.

And not forgetting that hanging over it all is the EU Commission’s almost-completed revisions to the control of state aid and public broadcasting. But that’s enough for one post.

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