Public service broadcasting: yesterday, today and tomorrow

Richard Collins explores Britain's complex broadcasting inheritance and asks how we can make use of changing circumstances and technologies to overcome the crisis in the provision of public service content
Richard Collins
29 March 2010

The BBC has become one of the UK’s defining institutions – its existence, shape and size customarily have been questioned no more than has night following day. Only children, once or twice in their early lives, and a few licenced askers of “stupid” questions (who are usually kept under confinement in universities) ask things like “Why does the sun go down?”, “What would happen if it didn’t?”. Or, “Why do we have the BBC?” and “What would happen if we didn’t?”. So, why now is the existence, shape, size and role of the BBC more widely in question? Is it the BBC or the times that have changed (or both)?

It’s both. The BBC was set up in the 1920s, first as a provider of radio broadcasts owned by radio manufacturers (so that there would be a reason for people to buy radio receivers) and then, in 1927, as a public service. John Reith, the first general manager of the BBC and later, as it passed from private to public ownership, its first director general, defined public service as “primarily a standard and an outlook and only secondarily a form of administration”. And this “standard and outlook” was expressed in programming which, in turn, was, as Reith said, delivered as “exclusively a table d’hôte”[1]. The BBC was able to maintain its distinctive “standard and outlook”, and to define its own version of the “particular form” of public sector administration to which Reith referred, for more than fifty years. It was mildly vexed by gnat bites of competition from offshore advertising-funded radio (whether the pirates of the 1960s and 1970s or Radios Normandie and Luxembourg from the 1930s) and once, in the mid 1950s, a serious UK-based competitor, ITV, had been established (followed in the early 1970s by, if not gnat-sized then at least no bigger than mosquito-sized, commercial radio competitors) the BBC and its competitor/partner ITV settled down to a “comfortable duopoly”.

Under the duopoly, the BBC had exclusive claim on the licence fee and ITV (and commercial radio) an exclusive claim on broadcast advertising finance. Scheduling was co-ordinated: for example by documentaries and current affairs programmes (embodying a public service “standard and outlook”) being scheduled against each other so viewers wanting to escape a Reithian table d’hôte were frustrated. In television, the era of “comfortable duopoly” has also, with some justice, been seen as the “golden age” of UK television with both the BBC and ITV contributing iconic programmes. Opinions differ as to quite when the “golden age” began and ended (cynics might argue that it always coincided with the youth of whoever was invoking the golden age) but whenever it was, it was some time ago: whether the 1950s (News at 10, Coronation Street, Hancock’s Half Hour, Captain Pugwash, Armchair Theatre), 1960s (Z Cars, the Wednesday Play, The Avengers, World in Action), or 1970s to mid-1980s (Diverse Reports, Fawlty Towers, Bagpuss, Pobol y Cym, Grange Hill, Taggart).

But the world in which the BBC could be taken for granted – just as the sun rose (even if invisible behind clouds or fog one knew it to be there) so there was the BBC doing its BBC thing – started to unravel in the early 1980s and the unravelling has continued apace since then. Table d’hôte started to give way to à la carte. First came Channel 4 in 1982 – for the first time the BBC competed with another not-for-profit public service broadcaster. The UK changed from a place where public service broadcasting was synonymous with the BBC, and any defence (or attack) on public service broadcasting was, ipso facto, a defence (or attack) on the BBC, to a place where there was clearly more than one way to realise the standard and outlook of public service in broadcasting and where public service broadcasting could take more than one organisational (or, Reith’s term, administrative) form. All this started to put the BBC and its way of doing things in question.

Later in the 1980s came the Peacock Report – remarkable in that few of its specific recommendations were enacted, though, despite that, it was profoundly  influential in advocating market led broadcasting. Peacock opened an ideological door (technological change forced open the real door) for pay TV in the 1990s and thus a further step towards à la carte broadcasting was taken. Peacock put the BBC on the back foot: after 1986, the case for public service broadcasting (though ably made by Andrew Graham, Gavyn Davies and others) had to be constructed defensively – as an argument about how broadcasting markets, even à la carte markets, necessarily failed (as they do) and how only public intervention could secure public interest and public policy objectives. The problem with such arguments is that they did not answer urgent practical questions: notably whether the scale of public intervention in the UK – funding the BBC (not to mention Channel 4) at a level close to one day’s UK GDP – was a proportionate response to the problem of market failure and whether the instruments of intervention – notably the BBC – continued to be appropriate in changing circumstances.

As competition grew, from 1990 with Sky television and from 2000 with the internet, the structural contradiction built into the BBC from its inception was levered open. If the BBC exists to redress market failure in broadcasting – to put forward a distinctive standard and outlook as Reith had put it – then the BBC (or, more generally, public service broadcasting) must be different. It must do what others broadcasters don’t. But the problem with such a “Himalayan strategy” (as it was unkindly called during the director general-ship of one of its proponents, John Birt – though Birt was not wholly consistent in his Himalayanism) is that, putatively, it risks weakening the legitimacy of licence fee funding. If, the theory goes, most people most of the time are to pay the licence fee, whether willingly or grudgingly, then they have to use BBC services a significant amount to be prepared to do so. BBC programming needs to be at least acceptable and at best valued by most viewers and listeners. As competition intensified, and à la carte broadcasting extended viewers’ and listeners’ choices, so it became more difficult for the BBC to command audiences for the public service programming that was, at bottom, its raison d’ être. The contradiction between distinctiveness and popularity had remained decently hidden during the BBC’s heyday as table d’hôte broadcaster but was now forced into insistent visibility.

The BBC opted for popularity, it chased share and ratings, sought (often successfully) to outbid its rivals for talent and rights and acquired a reputation for “dumbing down” (as its current director general, Mark Thompson, is on the record[2] as acknowledging). But it did this at a time when its viewing share was remorselessly declining – as, almost of necessity, it would during a period in which alternative channels increased massively – to a current level of about 30 percent. Radio is another story – there the BBC’s share grew, embarrassingly, to its current level of about 56 percent occasioning cries of pain from commercial radio bleeding to death from the BBC’s putative abuse of its dominant position in radio. Choosing to chase audiences, of course, meant that the BBC’s programming more and more resembled its commercial competitors – to the point of risibility when the BBC and ITV simulcast the same World Cup soccer – compromising the core of its claim to public funding; that it was redressing market failure.

The screw that started tightening in the 1980s was turned further in the 1990s. Sky built its subscriber base (not, interestingly, by achieving high viewing shares – Sky currently scores less than a 7 percent share of the TV audience – but by attracting a diverse subscriber base, all sufficiently interested in some part of the Sky bouquet to pay for a whole bouquet even if, in terms of hours per week, Sky was not much watched) enabling it to outbid the BBC (and its free-to-air rivals) for rights and to establish high quality, public service-like channels such as Sky News and Sky Arts. Products such as Sky Arts fit the Sky business model well – they enable Sky to attract subscribers not tempted by the core Sky offerings, Sky Movies, Sky Sport and the like, but who, once buying into the Sky package, cost almost nothing to serve though their subscriptions go almost completely to the bottom line. Sky has thus been able to mount not only a powerful commercial challenge (its revenues now considerably exceed either the BBC’s licence fee revenues or the aggregate advertising revenues achieved by ITV, the other Channel three franchisees, Channel 4 and Five) but also a persistent and influential campaign to delegitimise the BBC in principle and practice.

Further, and perhaps more fundamentally, the changes in UK broadcasting (and parallel changes overseas and in the United States in particular) have tarnished the already tawdry claim that Britain has the “best television in the world”. At a time of a British retreat from relevance, when the weight of UK TV drama funding and production has been re-directed and re-apportioned to costume drama at the expense of imaginative engagement with contemporary UK realities (Cranford, Bleak House, Lark Rise, etc rather than Our Friends in the North, Boys from the Blackstuff, Bouquet of Barbed Wire, etc), the schedules have been stuffed with wonderful HBO and post HBO US drama (Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Six Feet Under, etc).

The internet has further changed UK broadcasting both positively and negatively. Positively, internet delivered TV has increased viewers’ choices – whether by making accessible (some) television services from outside the UK or by increasing viewers’ control over consumption through time shifting applications such as the BBC iPlayer or the SkyPlayer. And negatively, at least for broadcasting incumbents, because internet users watch less TV than do non-users. The 2009 Oxford Internet Study found non-users spent 25 hours a week watching TV whilst internet users spent only fifteen hours watching TV[3]. And, even more important, advertisers have shifted their spend away from television to the internet (particularly to search advertising): in the first half of 2009, television accounted for c 22 percent of UK advertising revenues and the internet 23.5 percent. The change in the advertising market has meant intense revenue pressures, and hence pressures to cut costs, on Channels three, four and five. In turn these pressures have led to demands on funding hitherto considered “ring-fenced” – ie for “top-slicing” the BBC licence fee so as to fill the advertising funded psbs (and notably Channel 4’s) revenue shortfall; for financial support to sustain the regional news services formerly provided by ITV; and for a general re-apportioning of broadcasting finance to re-balance a regime thought to have become unacceptably skewed, in which BBC revenues are not only guaranteed but are increasing whilst its advertising funded rivals’ resources have been contracting.

But all this is a story of the incumbents – of which the BBC remains the most important and thus the one with most to lose from change. The internet actually and potentially lowers barriers to entry. Its potential is most obvious in genres like news and current affairs - as the existence of a host of sites such as openDemocracy, Ekklesia, Pickled Politics, and the like testify. Ofcom early identified this potentiality when, in its 2005 public service broadcasting review, it envisioned a public service publisher supported by public finance, able to commission content from independent producers and distribute it on any or all of the multiplicity of digital systems the future would bring.

The positive potential of internet-based public service content provision contrasts (though it’s a poor theoretical alternative that can’t look good next to a grubby reality) with the declining trustworthiness and perceived value for money offered by the BBC. The BBC’s lost legitimacy has been self inflicted as well as the product of external circumstances. In 2008 Ofcom fined the BBC £400,000 for eight separate breaches of the Ofcom programme codes and commented “In each of these cases the BBC deceived its audience by faking winners of competitions and deliberately conducting competitions unfairly”[4]. A year earlier, Ofcom had fined the BBC £50,000 for falsifying the results of a competition on, almost unbelievably, Blue Peter. And a succession of National Audit Office enquiries into BBC cost-effectiveness and value for money (quietly tucked away on the BBC Trust web site but, if one knows where to look, commendably accessible to the public[5]) have provided grounds to take seriously recent survey research findings that 40 percent of licence fee payers believe the BBC does not provide value for money[6].

There is therefore a crisis in UK public service broadcasting which centres on its flagship – the BBC. Crises bring opportunities as well as threats. For the incumbent public service broadcasters, and most of all the BBC, externally and internally inflicted wounds suggest that times will continue to be tough. But for potential new entrants in web-based public service content provision – civil society organisations, universities, museums, galleries and libraries (just the bodies which in some countries pioneered public service broadcasting in the inter-war years) – there are wonderful opportunities. Supporting such new entrants, under the umbrella of an Ofcom-like public service publisher, could do much to diversify, pluralise and incentivise innovation in a rather ossified public service broadcasting regime and in doing so, potentially at least, revivify some very troubled incumbents.  As Brecht wrote (roughly), better the bad new things than the good old ones.

[1] In the BBC Handbook 1928: 32-33.

[2] M Thompson, 'Zapped. Why Public Service TV has to change'. Speech at Banff Television Festival 12 June 2000. BBC News Release. at

[3] The Internet in Britain, OxIS 2009: 33.

[4] See

[5] See

[6] Purpose Remit Tracking Study 2009 - UK findings :41 at


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