Traditional UK broadcasting is unlikely to survive in the online world, unless broadcasting laws and regulation are overhauled and broadcasters speed up their transformation for the digital age, according to a new report from media regulator, Ofcom.

The finding comes from Small Screen: Big Debate – Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting that looks at how to strengthen and maintain PSB in the face of “unprecedented changes to technology, financing and viewer behaviour.”

Ofcom surveyed audiences across the UK along with broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts in the UK and abroad.

The report found that people identify trusted, accurate news as the most important aspect of public service media. More than seven in 10 viewers said regional news is important to them. All viewers value PSBs’ ability to bring society together, through coverage of events and programmes watched by millions, and they value content made about the UK, and take pride in seeing their own area represented on screen.
Audiences also value public-service content that they are unlikely to find elsewhere such as original UK children’s,  education and religious programming, made specifically for the UK.

The report also pointed to the PSBs spend of nearly £3 billion each year on the UK production sector that “supports a highly skilled workforce and helps develop new talent, allowing successful businesses to grow.”
However, audiences are increasingly turning away from the traditional PSB channels in favour of global streaming and online services. Last year, only 38% of 16-34s’ viewing (and 67% among all adults) was of traditional broadcast content. One in four viewers of streaming services say they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.

Ofcom’s report has identified how PSBs can stay relevant and reach everyone in future.

It states that the rules and laws around public service broadcasting largely date from when the internet was still in its infancy – and they remain focused on traditional broadcasting. “Without radical changes to support PSBs’ shift from traditional broadcasting to online, the challenges facing them may become acute.”

As a result, Ofcom is calling for a “new framework to establish clear goals for public service broadcasters, with greater choice over how they achieve them, and quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news. Companies should be required to set out, measure and report on their plans, with Ofcom holding them to account.”

It is also inviting views on changes to rules that will ensure PSB content is carried on different online platforms and will next year launch a review of how the UK production industry operates.

Ofcom has put forward a list of possible changes for debate including other companies becoming public-service media providers. Alongside the content provided by existing PSBs, new providers could help deliver public-service media in future. “This new content could focus on specific groups of people or types of programme. New providers could offer different skills, expertise and online experience – leading to wider benefits to audiences and the economy.”
Ofcom is also suggesting a new model for funding. including full or part subscription models and cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local news.

Ofcom report also looks at creating deeper relationships between PSBs and other companies – particularly on platforms and distribution – that “could help them compete more effectively with global players, and reach wider audiences. Shared research and development, performance data and back-office activities could also reduce costs, improve efficiencies and aid innovation.”

“For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules, and build a stronger system of public-service media that can flourish in the digital age,” said Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive. “That could mean big changes, such as a wider range of firms tasked with providing high-quality shows made for, in and about the UK.”

Jon Creamer

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