Three-D Issue 25: Not just an attack on the BBC: a new inquiry into public service television

CDXF-x6WIAA1GcyDes Freedman
Goldsmiths, University of London

Many of us are rightly preoccupied with responding to the Green Paper’s attempt to shrink the role of the BBC and to restrict the flow of funding that it needs to fulfil its remit. Many of us also acknowledge that the Corporation needs a serious input of democracy into its governance, its programming and its relationship to audiences if it is to command popular support in resisting pressure from a government that is determined to roll back public provision, whether in terms of education, health, welfare or culture.

But the debates also need to go well beyond the BBC because public service broadcasting as a whole is facing sustained attack. George Osborne, for example, has hinted that he is prepared to sell off Channel 4 as part of his wider disposal of public assets while ITV is making huge profits from its ownership of lucrative formats and is subject to increasingly light-touch regulation. Indeed, we can expect a takeover bid from a conglomerate like Liberty Global which would place added pressure on the ability of ITV to pursue what remains of its public service obligations.

Meanwhile, Ofcom figures from its third review of public service broadcasting show that, while public service operators are still the most significant producers of original UK content (spending over £2 billion in 2013 compared to pay TV’s contribution of about £350 million), there has been a dramatic fall in investment in several key genres. This includes a decline of 44% since 2008 in spending on original drama and 30% in comedy. Ofcom claim that there is now ‘minimal provision in some genres’, for example, arts, classical music, religion and education – programmes that were traditionally seen to be at the heart of an inclusive public service remit. Taken across the board, there has been a 20% reduction in real terms investment in public service programmes since 2008.

This is in the context of huge profits at Sky – some £1.4 billion last year – together with the rise of new commercial broadcasters including BT, Netflix and Amazon which only recently paid £160 million to sign up Jeremy Clarkson and his friends for a new motoring show.

So public service broadcasting, and television in particular, is facing a highly uncertain future. In this situation, researchers at Goldsmiths have set up what we hope will be a unique public inquiry into the culture, economics, institutions and future prospects of public service television. Our starting point is that TV still matters in a digital environment: despite predictions that the internet would put an end to the dominance of TV, the average UK viewer still watches nearly four hours of television every day, a figure that has remained largely stable since the introduction of multichannel broadcasting. Even 16-24 year olds are still watching some two and a half hours of TV a day. Yet TV is simultaneously being transformed with the emergence of more complex viewing practices, new modes of production and distribution and a far more competitive and unstable economic environment.

We take our inspiration from a previous inquiry into UK broadcasting. In 1962, the Pilkington Committee’s report was published which recommended the adoption of colour television licences and the creation of a further television channel to be run by the BBC. The Report, however, was far more than a mere list of policy prescriptions and technological summaries but a searing indictment of the direction of travel of British television under the influence of a growing commercial mindset and an increasing number of programmes imported from the USA. It advocated measures designed to revitalise the idea of public service broadcasting and to foster a more creative and robust public culture. We intend to revisit these issues – and many more – and to launch a Pilkington Report for the 21st century: a public inquiry that considers the role and responsibility of television in the digital world.

The Inquiry is chaired by Lord Puttnam, architect of the public interest test in the 2003 Communications Act, and supported by both a wide-ranging Advisory Committee as well as an industry-focused Broadcast Panel. The Inquiry itself will consist of a series of public events, seminars and written submissions and will be officially launched at a Guardian debate on public service television featuring Melvyn Bragg, the actress Julie Hesmondhalgh and RTS president Peter Bazalgette on Wednesday 25 November. This will be followed by a seminar on the funding of public service hosted by the British Academy on 15 December. The British Academy will also host a smaller working group meeting in the New Year exploring changing conceptions of public service in a digital age while there will be additional events involving our other partners: Vice, BAFTA and the Hansard Society in the first half of 2016.

We will publish our findings at the end of June 2016 and, both in the Report and throughout the Inquiry, aim to provide

  • a comprehensive overview of the changing television environment
  • contributions from academics, researchers, industry and civil society voices
  • analysis of a range of issues including the purposes of PSB, its funding, its working conditions, its performance, its representation of minority groups, its ability to serve regional audiences as well as the contribution that could be made to a public service environment by broadcasters who are currently not operating on public service lines
  • a series of recommendations on how best to secure public service television in the UK

We invite you to submit short (maximum 2000 word) papers exploring any issues that you think are relevant to the Inquiry and, crucially, to provide us with specific recommendations about best to foster an accountable and democratic public service television system.

You can find out more details at www.futureoftelevision.org.uk or you can email your submission directly to Vana Goblot,  v.goblot@gold.ac.uk.

Posted by Einar Thorsen