Small Screen: Big Debate

Small Screen: Big Debate

The trouble with big picture consultations, as Ray Snoddy argues, is that they stir-up headlines for ideas not to be taken seriously and hide the all-important recommendations

A cynic might say that the best thing about Ofcom’s consultation on the future of public service broadcasting is its title – succinct and very much to the point. Small Screen: Big Debate.

There is indeed an absolute and urgent need for a big debate as the UK system of public service broadcasting, which offers probably the most extensive range of programme choice in the world, faces a toxic combination of existential threats.

There are the financial threats to the system- political in the case of the BBC- and Covid-related hits to the revenues of commercial public service broadcasters.

Then there is the shift in viewing patterns in the direction of the SVODs, a move accelerated everywhere by Covid lockdowns. Ironically, it came at the same time as those same viewers increasingly watched, trusted and depended on the news and information provided by the PSBs.

The threat from the SVODs is increasing all the time. Every week seems to bring word of the launch of new streaming services – the latest offerings, Discovery and Time Warner’s HBO Max to add to the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney + and NBCUniversal’s Peacock to name but a few.

It is hardly surprising that the Ofcom study concludes, correctly, that traditional UK broadcasting is unlikely to survive in the online world unless broadcasting laws and regulations are overhauled and broadcasters speed up their transformation for the digital age.

The sentence amounts to a truism and Ofcom is also right to emphasise that public service broadcasting lies at the heart of the UK’s highly successful creative industry and has shaped the system as it is today.

At its centre is the BBC, with its global reach and scale across a wide range of genres.

The trouble with big picture consultations, perhaps inevitably, is that all sorts of daft and whacky ideas are stirred in to the discussion along with those that are deadly serious.

They can be a distraction and usually dominate the tabloid headlines.

SVODs such as Netflix could be encouraged to make public service programmes for the British market. Really? How likely is that to happen?

Then there is that old chestnut – contestable funding for PBS programming- which raises the equally old questions of who pays and who chooses.

If the SVODs are going to put their hands in their very deep pockets to pay for such a fund, fine – just so long as the concept is not only seen as another opportunity by the Government to dip the BBC licence fee.

Should the online catch-up services of the UK’s PSBs be merged into a single entity to avoid confusion in the public mind?

No. They already combine in the subscription service Britbox and that is where such co-operation should take place.

Viewers are perfectly capable of finding and distinguishing between the iPlayer, ITV Hub, All4 and My5 where competition should still be the order of the day.

The PSBs might however consider joint marketing campaigns to get across the uniqueness of PSB values and programmes to make sure that those who watch Peaky Blinders on Netflix know who made it.

Who could argue against the creation of “a new model for stable funding” but it is not encouraging that these include full or part subscription models.

Full or part subscription models would destroy the concept, particularly in the case of the BBC, of national broadcasters providing universal services available to everyone.

Calling for cross-media financing to support local and regional media funds where TV, radio, online and press could collaborate, is all very well but again where exactly would the money come from?

The Cairncross report on the importance and future viability of the press and local news has led to zero action.

All of such ideas, however worthy in concept, tend to deflect attention from the vitally serious Ofcom recommendations in paragraphs I.15 and 1.16.

They are that an updated regulatory system should ensure public service media remain prominent so that audiences can readily find it and that the new framework secures the availability of public service media.

The twin recommendations, which will require broadcasting legislation should have – much greater prominence in Small Screen: Big Debate.

They are absolutely vital to the creation of anything remotely resembling a level playing field and giving the PSBs the chance to compete with what they do best – high quality, original programmes for the UK market.

There is another conundrum. Should the regulatory constraints on Britain’s PSBs be relaxed in line with the SVODs, which essentially face none? Or should it be the other way round?

Let’s go for a difficult ‘What If’ idea.

Should international SVODs who sell subscriptions in the UK be required to accept an Ofcom code of practice which might, for instance, prevent them passing off fiction, such as The Crown, as fact?

Whatever happens, nothing will happen for years. The formal Ofcom recommendations will be submitted to the Government next summer and who knows when any action will be taken.

It is even possible that the can will be kicked down the road until the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter, which runs out at the end of 2027.

Meanwhile, a new book by Patrick Barwise and Peter York should be included in its entirety in the Ofcom consultation.

Published by Penguin, The War Against the BBC: How an unprecedented combination of hostile forces is destroying Britain’s greatest cultural institution …And why you should care, acknowledges the threat from technological change and SVODs.

For Barwise and York the greatest threat of all comes from the actions of this and previous Conservative governments and the small totally unaccountable free market think-tanks.

They are not just hostile to the BBC and its licence fee funding but have the ear of government, while their views are amplified by newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Sun.

The BBC, which is typically portrayed as being too big and too interfering in the market, has actually had its finances squeezed by government in real and relative terms for the past decade.

A chilling forecast, which has been accurate so far, suggested that the BBC TV’s share of total industry revenue would fall from 22% in 2010, to 17% in 2016 and 12% by 2026.

The devastating Barwise/ York demolition of a rather special Daily Mail article is alone worth the purchase price of the book.

The Daily Mail “revealed” that the BBC spent just £2.4 billion of its £5.1 billion annual budget on “public service content. ”

Embarrassingly, the claim that the BBC spent only 47% of its revenue on programmes, was lapped up uncritically by Sir Max Hastings in a subsequent column.

In fact, the BBC spends 93% of its licence fee income on programmes and direct overheads.

Perhaps Ofcom could take into account the political dimension when producing a template for the future of British public service broadcasting.

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