The Future of Public Service Broadcasting

By Don Redding


Charting the threats to an entire sector

The Communications Act 2003 appeared to protect public service broadcasting. It gave new regulator Ofcom a ‘principal duty … to further the interests of citizens (and consumers) in relation to communications matters’; specified a new remit for public service television; and said Ofcom must aim to ‘maintain and strengthen’ psb.

But these overall duties mask significant changes to the broadcasting ‘ecology’. The light remits given to ITV and Channel 5 enable them to ‘opt out’ of large parts of the public service remit. ITV has already signalled that it will not provide international documentaries, and may reduce its religious and children’s programming; while regional production is being savaged. ITV’s view – implicitly accepted by regulators and government – is that it can only compete with the BBC to provide a public service in the areas of news, drama and regional programming. And all this before the channel is fully centralised and sold off to foreign owners.

This leaves citizens disproportionately dependent on the BBC and Channel 4, as publicly owned broadcasters, to provide public cultural goods. The BBC faces another lengthy battle for Charter renewal. Channel 4 faces a squeeze on its audience and revenue from ITV and Channel 5, both of them now open to ownership by US corporations and, in the case of Channel 5, powerful newspaper groups.

Now, in the wake of the Act, comes a series of ‘reviews’ heralding a new wave of unpredictable repercussions. By the end of 2004 new policy proposals for the future of public service TV in general, and the BBC in particular, will be committed to paper – and hard to influence any further. The likely timetable for these reviews is shown in the box.

By the spring, Ofcom’s review of public service TV intends to measure both quantitative output and qualitative impact, in an economic context – in other words, a cost-benefit, or ‘value for money’ agenda. This could lead to strenuous questioning of the BBC and Channel 4’s roles. The commercial channels see this as an opportunity to argue for a ‘redistribution’ of the costs and responsibilities – ITV, for example, seeking to link a rebate on its hefty licence payments to meeting its public service obligations.

By the same point, the BBC’s Online service and digital channels will have been reviewed; and a government consultation on the BBC Charter will close. The BBC will also release a ‘green paper’ setting out a vision of its future ‘purposes’, and run its own consultation on these. The government will publish a formal Green Paper on the future of the BBC in November 2004, coinciding with Ofcom’s final verdict on the future of public service TV as a whole.

The Loneliness of the BBC

Central to the future of public service broadcasting, then, is BBC Charter renewal. Like Gulliver, the BBC is a giant beast in the landscape, over whom its enemies crawl, attempting to bind it with a thousand ropes. The creative community and the voluntary sector alike may stand by appalled, but – as we hear it cry out promises of future virtue – would we wish to come to its rescue?

For Liberal Democrat peer, Lord McNally, the scenarios are simple. The BBC’s opponents would reduce it to “an emasculated version, small, underfunded and pushed to the margins” like the Australian broadcasting Corporation. “The danger is not frontal attack but death by a thousand cuts – cutting down public service broadcasting to a ghettoised and marginalised role.”

Start date Agent 
Subject Consultation/
What's it about?
Govt Charter review questions deadline 31 March 04 What the public wants from the BBC
Current Govt BBC Online closed 17 Nov 03
Report due March 04
BBCi performance against 1997 consent; market impact; future of BBCi
Current Ofcom Public Service TV:
How it fulfills the remit
1st report March/April 04
1st consultation follows
2nd report summer 04
3rd report autumn 04
How main TV channels have met the remit in the Communications Act; what value for money they provide; what should be their future responsibilities for psb.
Jan 04 Govt BBC digital channels consultation Jan-Feb 04
Report due April 04
Performance of BBC Three & Four, & digital radio, against initial consents; and their future
Current BBC Manifesto: Charter review  
March 04
consultation follows
Future purposes of the BBC
04? Select cttee BBC Charter inquiry call for evidence?? Recommendations for govt on Charter review
June 04 Govt Green Paper: BBC publication Nov 04 Govt policy for the BBC if still in power by 2006

Certainly that is how the commercial critics are lining up. Similar chains of thought unite BSkyB, other commercial channels, publishers, internet content providers, and elements of the Conservative and even Labour parties. First, they question the BBC’s general commercial activities through BBC Worldwide, claiming that the commercial tail wags the public service dog – although it was the last Charter review which ordered the BBC to maximise its commercial take. Second, they attack specific commercial products, such as the raft of new magazine titles launched in the last year. Third, they criticise the BBC’s new, non-commercial services for seizing commercial territory where there is no ‘market failure’: CBBC and CBeebies, for instance, competing with the likes of Nickelodeon, or BBCi setting up websites that seize ‘eyeball time’ from commercial internet publishers.

The common thread is the complaint of overweening market dominance and unfair competition, the common remedy being to tame, restrict and undermine the Corporation – pinning it back to some notion of ‘uncontroversial’ (in market terms) provision of public service. A variety of more-or-less punitive remedies is suggested: abolishing the governors and putting the BBC under Ofcom; ‘top-slicing’ the licence fee, and redistributing it to others who contract to provide a public service; selling off commercial divisions; closing services and tying up those that remain in ever-tighter structures of conditionality; even, as BSkyB suggested, forcing the BBC to license successful programmes to the commercial sector.

These arguments are reductionist and dangerous for our citizenship. Public service broadcasting does not consist of a few marginal genres of worthy programming, but a broad, deep and creative menu of ‘information, education and entertainment’ as the Act enshrines it – one that is capable of bringing mass audiences to content they may not otherwise value or choose. Moreover, in the digital world, it must do this through a variety of platforms and approaches, serve both individuals and mass audiences, and extend their interest by taking them to a range of ‘deeper’, networked content.

BBC critics misuse the ‘market failure’ argument. They assert that, if other providers exist, the BBC should get out of the market. But the ‘market failure’ argument does not say that: it demonstrates that even where there is a plurality of providers, the market can fail. This is because people do not know what information they need until they have it; if left to themselves would not use enough of it; and will not pay for high-cost quality public goods. As a result the providers will not provide such goods. Nevertheless, arguments over ‘market failure’ will not safeguard the BBC’s future. This is a political battle, requiring the mobilisation of forces. Can the BBC rally enough friends?

The BBC’s main pitch for support will be to redefine its ‘purposes’. From these purposes flow the decisions about its role, number of services, and funding. The BBC will position itself as the key provider of public information goods grouped under rhetoric designed to gladden New Labourites: ‘creating an informed democracy’, ‘connecting with communities’, developing a ‘learning society’, and ‘reflecting the diversity of UK society’, for example.

This is voluntary sector – ‘civil society’ – territory, and raises two cheers. But only two. How real are these statements? Will the BBC stick to them until 2016? What will make them accountable? Do they mean re-organising BBC services – or just re-describing them? Would services close, if they don’t meet these ‘purposes’? And in this social territory, will the BBC work in genuine partnership? Or will it be a domineering Corporation, seizing public spaces in which voluntary groups/community media operate, squeezing out start-ups? Should all the licence fee go to this ‘top-down’ provider, or should some be sequestered for genuine community media?

Thus a latent critique in the voluntary sector is not dissimilar to that of the commercial sector’s, but on different territory. Creative workers too, such as those in the Creators’ Rights Alliance, are fed up with having their rights and bargaining positions squeezed by the Corporation. So, when the BBC launches its ‘green paper’, will anyone march in step? Perhaps, if the BBC can demonstrate change. It must become a better partner, a more ‘networked’ provider, an ‘enabler’, not always the leading player. It should commit itself to binding frameworks that enable principled partnerships with civil society groups, with other media contributors and with its creative employees – rather as independent producers got better codes through the Communications Act. If it wishes to justify its general entertainment services as a way of bringing people to public service content, then it must more clearly provide that content, not downgrade it to ‘digital only’. It will have to make difficult choices – redirecting investment and programme spend away from services that provide little public benefit.

3WE has suggested that the new Charter and Agreement should be fundamentally rewritten to give the BBC a new purpose, enshrined in statute, ‘to serve the communications needs, rights and interests of citizens’. This would parallel the principal duty of Ofcom, making the citizen the end point of all communications regulation. Each BBC service should have its own specified purpose, derived from this one and relevant to its distinctive platform or voice. Clear performance criteria should be set for such delivery. These measures could be explicitly related to international instruments such as human rights conventions, the UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, and the Declaration and Plan of Action from the World Summit on the Information Society, offering better long term legitimacy and protection from the forces of globalisation.

In summary, this is an appeal for a two-pronged campaign for the future of public service media: to persuade the BBC to change, and to see off the cultural marauders of the for-profit sector. To ensure that psb has a future will require a mobilisation of all those who support the concept of cultural public goods, of content made for citizens’ information, education and cultural development – and not for profit.

Don Redding is the Co-ordinator of 3WE and Vice Chair of Public Voice.

For further information:

The government’s public consultation on the BBC is at
Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting is at

Details of the review of BBC online are at (see ‘closed consultations’) and at

3WE is at and or e-mail

Public Voice is at e-mail