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Weekend Spy: To PSB, or not to PSB...

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Weekend Spy: To PSB, or not to PSB...
There are those who believe that the television programmes broadcasters have to broadcast should be restricted to children's programmes and news, and that the remainder of the schedule should be decided on a more commercial basis. With increasing commercial pressures, fragmented viewing, and the growth of the multi-platform environment, the current public service remit in the UK is certainly in need of a review. Media regulator Ofcom is poised to begin the review process this Autumn. So how do broadcasters feel about the current PSB model? Is it an obstacle to a competition in the industry? Joanne Oatts listened to both sides of the story at the Institute of Economic Affairs 5th Annual conference on "The Future of Broadcasting."

The question put to the speakers at the conference was this: is the current public service broadcasting (PSB) model an obstacle to a competitive market? Anne Bulford, group finance director for public service broadcaster Channel 4, spoke first, giving the case for the defence:

"Public service broadcasting in the UK is a major intervention, but it's one that produces some of the best TV in the world. We have the highest level of investment in original programming per head than any other country. We generate hundreds of millions of pounds in exports because of that investment, and much of that [output] comes from the independent sector: programmes commissioned by the public service broadcasters," she said.

Rather than impeding the market, Bulford said the dynamic between the PSBs and the commercial sector is complementary. Without the PSBs commissioning UK-originated programmes, there would be far greater reliance on US content across the board, "as we have seen in the British film industry - there is no intervention there. US films have the market share at the box office of between 80 and 90%," she added.

Bulford also pointed to a recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers which highlighted the many support schemes the likes of Channel 4 are involved in to help the independent production sector. PWC referred to such schemes as "a mini industrial policy for the benefit of the creative economy, which provides a wider diversity of production talent and which generates new and innovative ideas which translate into quality on-screen programmes." The PWC report also showed that Channel 4 helps create 22,000 jobs and contributes around £2 billion to the economy annually.

Whether you agree with recent criticism of Channel 4's editorial line on shows like Big Brother, one cannot deny that during its 25 years it has nurtured and helped create some of the UK's most notable talents - albeit if they've eventually moved on to work for other broadcasters. Perhaps it has recently stopped taking as many risks in the content it commissions, but that could be said of ITV or the BBC who are both facing their own commercial pressures.

In Bulford's view, Channel 4 has done more than any other broadcaster to stimulate competition in the UK production sector, stating that the BBC and ITV have relied too heavily on their in-house production teams. While she acknowledged Sky's work in sports coverage, news and recently-rebranded Sky Arts, Bulford went on to point out that the satellite broadcaster has done "little of consequence outside of these genres," in its 15 years of operation. "Channel 4 has commissioned more than all the other digital channels put together, who rely largely on US acquisitions, repeats, or low cost original content," she added.

And as an accountant, did Bulford have the figures to back up the case for the PSBs? "Ofcom figures show that £2.7 billion was spent last year on original content in the UK, and something like £2.6 billion was spent by the PSBs. In our view that is a spur to a competitive market, not an obstacle," she concluded.

Giving the opposing perspective, Martin Le Jeune, head of public affairs at Sky, was adamant in his view that a public service broadcast model is an obstacle to a commercially funded market. But he points out a more interesting question, which is 'does it matter?' "If you want to have a completely competitive market, that is a policy choice. You might think it is a bad idea, as it will drive out quality; it will leave broadcasting in the hands of 'barbarians' and they will create rubbish." But Le Jeune dismissed this belief, stating that on the Sky channels there is now far more content across the network that is 'just like' public service broadcaster content, "by commercial players that have no obligation to do so."

Le Jeune said he views the phrase 'public service broadcasting' as a "fraudulent term". "If you look at terms used by the likes of Ofcom or the DCMS, they are very vague. They have to be like that, because if they weren't that wide it would be very difficult to justify the amount of state money that goes into public service broadcasting. But it does mean that a lot of the stuff that we [Sky] produce could easily fall within that definition," he added.

The main perception of the non-PSB channels is that all the content of is 'bought in' or lacks quality. Le Jeune is aware of this: "Quality is a value judgment. I prefer the term diversity. Let me put it like this: there happen to be two types of programming I like watching: opera and football. By contrast, I have always found nature programming dull, and though my children would disagree, I find Big Brother nauseating and offensive. But I don't argue that football and opera should be subsidised by you so I can watch it. Or, indeed, that the other stuff I don't like should be left to go hang to the mercies of the market."

So what are Ofcom going to come up with later this year in their PSB review? It is very likely the there will be a move towards appointing a public service publisher, which is an idea that has been floated for many years. The PSP will have a presence online, but will be able to produce content for other 'new media' platforms. Or as Ofcom puts it: "the first provider of public service content rooted in the ideas, creativity and ethos of new media." While this proposal has gained momentum over the years, Le Jeune rightly points out that a lot of what this new body would provide is already out there. "Do the people who have come up with this idea actually go online? What is already on the internet meets ever conceivable characteristic of public service media content," Le Jeune said.

The obsession with the PSBs to ensure everything of value shown on the PSB channels is prefixed with the term "UK-originated" is something Le Jeune also has a problem with. He claimed it was a term used in the industry to keep many in business who are not providing the content that viewers really need. But his real concern was with how public money is being spent, and what on. "One thing we have to consider when we debate this is we are not talking about government money, or BBC money - its other people's money. Taking away the choice for them to spend it on the things they want, so that we can provide them with things that we think they ought to have, is a decision that should be made with far more care than it is currently within UK broadcasting."

Ofcom's next statutory review of Public Service Broadcasting will begin in the Autumn. Its current consultation work on the PSP concept is ongoing and will feed into the review. More details can be found on www.ofcom.org.uk.

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