Three-D Issue 26: A Future for Public Service TV?

Des FreedmanDes Freedman
Goldsmiths, University of London & project lead for the Inquiry

Publishing a report into the future of television only five days after the EU referendum result was not exactly our preferred option given that attention was likely to be focused elsewhere. Except that so many of the themes of the report – including the representative nature of public service broadcasting, the role of impartiality, the changing demographics of the UK and the need for diversity in broadcasting – are also connected to the seismic political shifts that gave rise to the ‘leave’ vote and that will be played out for years to come. Television – because of its status as a trusted news source and engine of cultural integration (or exclusion) – is one of the institutions that needs to be forensically examined in order to make sense of how it can best – or, as some might say, start to – operate in the public interest.

Screen_Shot_2016-07-23_at_22.54.34Conducting an inquiry into the future of anything is demanding but exploring the future of an industry and a medium that is being buffeted by the winds of technological, political and cultural change, has proved a real challenge. One thing has become abundantly clear: that there is very little agreement. There isn’t a consensus on the pace of change, on the impact of current developments, on the measures needed to secure public service television, or even on whether we need public service television any more. There isn’t a consensus about the future of the BBC or Channel 4 nor about how best to cater to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish audiences, about how best to increase diversity in the industry or even about entry to and training within the industry.

Any perhaps that is the key: that, dissensus, not consensus, is the new normal and that we better get used to the absence of agreement. And perhaps broadcasters and content providers, above all ones with specific public responsibilities, need to learn from this if they’re to be able to claim legitimacy and loyalty at such an uncertain time. Perhaps that is one of the failings of some of our most popular broadcasters: that they have for too long gravitated towards a perceived ‘centre ground’ when this ‘centre ground’ was coming unstuck; that, instead of promoting a multitude of voices and taking risks, they have too often clung to the familiar and acceptable.

The fact is that precisely because these tendencies are even more pronounced in the commercial marketplace, we need public service broadcasters to take a leading role in our landscape. We want content that entertains and challenges us, that asks tough questions of our society and that shows us things we didn’t know we were interested in or familiar with.

So, more than ever, we need a creative, spirited and independent public service media. The truth is that the status quo isn’t really an option: technology won’t allow it, markets won’t allow it and I’m not sure that I audiences will allow it either.

In this context, policymakers need to discover the appetite to think creatively about to nurture durable and democratic forms of public service content provision. We believe that PSBs should continue to receive special privileges such as EPG protection and universal funding (in the case of the BBC) but they will have to earn them – they will have to raise their game and generate the innovative and relevant content and services that their audiences are demanding in a rapidly changing country; we need to foster new types of public service content for the digital age; we need our public service media to cater more effectively for all of the audiences of the UK; and we need urgently to address some of the barriers to entry both on- and off-screen.

In that spirit, we have made 30 recommendations in the report that include the following:

  • Retransmission fees should be paid by pay-TV platforms to public service television operators to address the current undervaluation of public service content by these distributors.
  • We need to future-proof and democratise the BBC: that means more engagement with the digital world, a fresh approach to impartiality that doesn’t focus on an artificial consensus, a new and transparent funding regime, a new constitutional settlement in statute and a meaningfully independent appointments system.
  • We believe that Channel 4 should not be privatised – neither in full or in part – and that the government should clarify its view on Channel 4’s future as soon as possible.
  • We argue that ITV’s commitment to public service needs to be strengthened. For that reason, Ofcom should conduct a review of how best ITV can contribute to the public service ecology for the next decade and beyond and whether it should be asked to take on a more ambitious role especially in regional TV and in current affairs.
  • We’re calling for the creation of a new fund for public service content that would be open to cultural institutions and small organisations not already engaged in commercial operations. This would be funded by the proceeds of a levy on the revenues of the largest digital intermediaries and internet service providers and carried out in partnership with PSB bodies.
  • We think that the any commitment to diversity must be accompanied by sufficient funds and that public service broadcasters should ring-fence funding specifically aimed at BAME productions.
  • We believe that we need commissioning structures and funding streams that better reflect devolutionary pressures and that budgets for spending in the devolved nations should be controlled by commissioners in those nations.

We have many other recommendations and points to make. They may well be dismissed as either too contentious or not contentious enough, as too timid or too controversial. The point is, however, that we want to find ways to build on television’s strengths, to address its weaknesses and to design a public service television ecology that responds to an environment where inequality, fear and uncertainty appear to be the dominant forces.

You can read the whole report, executive summary, transcripts of events and submissions at www.futureoftv.org.uk.

Posted by Einar Thorsen