The fate of public service broadcasting

Uncritical defenders of public service broadcasting have turned a blind eye to its decline. This is not a time for conservatism but for long overdue transformation. 

David Elstein
13 June 2016

Clara Molden/PA Archive/Press Association Images. All rights reserved

As is so often the case, we fail to see the wood for the trees. Too many of those who profess to be committed to public service broadcasting mistake the institutions we rely on for its delivery for PSB itself. Sadly, however often the under-performance by those institutions is made apparent, we cling to the fading promise rather than analyse the root weaknesses.

The most obvious evidence of this blinkered conservatism lies in much of the response to the White Paper on the future of the BBC, and the debate over possible privatisation of Channel 4. Any imagined change to the status quo for the BBC or Channel 4 is greeted with near-hysteria. Meanwhile, every three years, Ofcom reports on the state of PSB, and deafening silence greets its steady charting of the downward slope of delivery.

The paradox is that the supposed guardians of PSB – the BBC, Channel 4 and Ofcom (and to a much lesser extent ITV and Five) – are the guilty parties. The main criterion against which Ofcom measures PSB performance is the volume of UK originations, by value. What its reports demonstrate is a steady downward trajectory, such that the BBC and the commercial PSBs (ITV, Channel 4 and 5) each generates just £1 billion’s worth of UK origination, outside sport: a 15% decline in real terms since 2008. In ten years, over £500 million’s worth of origination has evaporated across the system.

The detail is even more alarming. There has been a wholesale abandonment of key public service genres: arts, education, children’s, current affairs, religion and nations and regions. Other than in children’s, where the BBC is the solitary provider, the falls have taken place across the commercial divide: this is not a function (certainly, not a sole function) of greater competition for advertising revenue. The BBC has also shifted resources, away from core PSB, and towards general output and infrastructure projects.

Across the system, spending on arts and classical music has declined 32% since 1998; while, according to Ofcom, “provision has all but ceased of religion and ethics (down 58% since 1998) and formal education (down 77% since 1998)”.

At one level, this is not entirely surprising. When the Broadcasting Policy Group – which I chair – published its report on the future of the BBC in 2004 (“Beyond The Charter”), we had a clear view of the perverse incentives that were undermining PSB delivery. The BBC, we said, was strongly motivated to preserve the television licence fee by offering a wide range of popular programming, so that the universal obligation to pay the licence fee was matched by provision to all types of viewers.

What might have been seen as an opportunity to deliver large amounts of the content that the market failed to supply – the core PSB genres – had become subsumed by the primary objective. Of course, a good deal of high quality programming continues to this day to be financed by the licence fee: but the steady reduction in that supply – that we had already identified in 2004 – also continues to this day.

Meanwhile, ITV’s ability to provide public service content – which it had done to increasingly powerful effect through the 1970s and 1980s – was thoroughly undermined by the auctioning of licences imposed by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, and the process of consolidation within ITV, first tolerated by the regulator, and then encouraged by it, which the auction effectively required.

The disappearance of much of ITV’s old PSB obligations – such as children’s programmes, education, arts, current affairs and documentaries – has been accompanied by a steady downgrading of whatever remained. In the 1990s, ITV broadcast six hours a week of commissioned drama. These days, it averages two hours a week. The ITV news audience has collapsed as a result of the main bulletin being shunted around the schedule for many years.

As for regional news and current affairs – which used to be the bedrock of the old federal ITV structure – Ofcom (the media regulator created in 2003) has allowed a substantial reduction in ITV’s provision. The biggest cut came in the wake of the 2008 advertising downturn: but Ofcom, in reluctantly bowing to temporary pressure, was too dozy to require a restoration of the cuts once ITV returned to its prior profitability. ITV now makes profits in excess of £800 million annually: the programming cuts have never been restored.

Ofcom’s weakness, the relaxation of specific PSB requirements allowed by the 2003 Communications Act, and ITV plc’s understandable drive for profits have had a paradoxical side effect. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the pre-1990 success of strong regulation of commercial ITV licensees, the notion of private ownership has itself become discredited.

The near unanimous opposition to privatisation of Channel 4 sometimes takes on an Alice in Wonderland dimension. On a platform with the outstanding director, Peter Kosminsky, recently, I heard him describe the consolidation of ITV in the 1990s (a foolish weakening of control by the regulator of the day) as “privatisation”: as if the ITV companies of the previous three decades (whose output he warmly praised) had not been privately-owned profit-seekers! He simply did not understand the difference between strong regulation and weak regulation.

For six years, I was responsible for the ITV weekday schedule. The rules laid down by the regulator were tough and strictly enforced: ITV delivered a service with PSB embedded at its heart, regularly out-performing the BBC in core PSB output. Arguably, the operational efficiencies required by private ownership – which contrasted with the over-staffed bureaucracies in the public sector – contributed to this outcome.

The presumption expressed by many independent producers – that private ownership of Channel 4 would be bound to result in worse output and budget cuts – is especially puzzling. They are all privately owned. Is corner-cutting, quality-reduction and budget-slashing really how they run their businesses and boost their profits? Have all the US broadcasters that commission drama and comedy shows that put the UK to shame prospered by chopping budgets? Has HBO ever reduced its programme spend? Did it throw away the pilot for “Game of Thrones” and start again because it was trying to save money to fund dividends?

When the BPG was writing its 2004 report, the impact of the 2003 Act on Channel 4 had barely begun to take effect. We looked at the most recent Channel 4 reports, and noted that its remit of hard quotas included 330 hours a year of schools programmes, 7 hours a week of adult education, 3 hours a week of multi-cultural content, an hour a week of religion, 4 hours a week of current affairs, 4 hours a week of peak-time news, 70% of all output (80% in peak) to be UK origination, 60% of all output (80% in peak) to be first run, and minimum proportions of output to be sourced outside the M25 and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Like other UK broadcasters, it was obliged to ensure 50% of output was of EU origin, 25% came from independent producers, and 10% from EU independents, as well as providing subtitling and signing to help the hard of hearing. Unique to Channel 4 was the duty to assign 0.5% of revenue to training and development.

In practice, the channel consistently out-performed nearly all these quota requirements. Unsurprisingly, the BPG saw no need to consider privatising Channel 4 in 2004.

Today, nearly all those obligations have been abandoned, to be replaced by verbal promises. Multi-cultural has been subsumed into “diversity”. Farrukh Dhondy, once responsible for multi-cultural output, concedes in the recently published book of essays on Channel 4 (“What Price Channel 4?”) that such content might need re-defining – “but please not DIVERSITY!” Arts programmes – never part of a formal quota, but long a mainstay of Channel 4 schedules – have virtually disappeared.

In my own chapter in the Channel 4 book – originally published by open Democracy on March 1st – I had tried to make sense of Channel 4’s claim, in its 2014 Annual Report, to have broadcast over 2,500 hours of education, for a spend of just £6 million. I put it down to a Freudian misprint. The 2015 Annual Report contained two new footnotes, designed to clarify the claim. The £6 million (now £5 million) was the budget for formal educational material for 14-19-year-olds – adult education, once the jewel in the Channel 4 crown, has been entirely discarded. The 2,622 hours (now 2,757) was the total of all programmes “that are educational in nature”.

That’s 55 hours of “educational” content per week: none of it specified or listed. Meanwhile, the last fragments of actual education are left in the hands of the Head of Formats, who tells us how proud he is to have reached 1.4 million 14-19-year-olds with content that is “not overbearingly ‘educational’”. Today, 60% of the Channel 4 schedule is repeats (against an upper limit of 40% 15 years ago): which at least is better than E4, which is 90% repeats and (in breach of EU rules) 65% US acquisitions.

Of course, the BBC is little better. According to the Green Paper, just 0.01% of BBC television output is education, and 0.001% of radio output: so much for “inform, educate and entertain”. The cries of anguish that greeted the appointment of supposed hard-liner John Whittingdale to take charge of BBC Charter review were scarcely muted when his anodyne Green Paper was published. Days before the even more anodyne White Paper emerged, Kosminsky was still warning BAFTA celebrants against looming “evisceration”.

What is actually happening? The BBC Trust is being replaced by a unitary board; external regulation will fall to Ofcom; BBC in-house production will be spun off as a separate entity, allowing open commissioning of nearly all BBC content; and a small contestable fund for public service content will be established. All these were recommended by the BPG in 2004 (though we wanted a larger contestable fund). Twelve wasted years.

The BBC has been allowed to keep the licence fee (which we thought should have been progressively replaced by subscription), but there is no guarantee that the fee will survive the technological changes sweeping the industry. It is being asked to be more “distinctive” – just as the BBC Trust repeatedly urged. Some commentators still seem to think that the BBC will be forced to offer free TV licences to the over-75s after May 2020. That is simply untrue: that “20% cut in BBC resources” will not happen unless the BBC chooses to inflict such a burden on itself.

There is some dispute about who will appoint the four BBC Board members to represent England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (John Whittingdale or BBC chair Rona Fairhead – as if it makes any difference). That some members of the House of Lords see this as an existential threat to the BBC is simply bonkers.

So Charter review comes and goes; and PSB continues its steady decline. The issue of that decline has been neither addressed nor analysed. The need for a large, dedicated public service content fund, to be allocated contestably, was urgent in 2004 (and in 2005, when the advisory committee chaired by Lord Burns reached the same conclusion). It is even more urgent now.

The self-styled defenders of PSB actually contribute to its decline by investing their political clout in defending the institutions that are at the root of the problem, and opposing the obvious solution. It has been a process that is neither edifying nor enlightening. We seem never to learn.

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