PSB at the crossroads

PSB at the crossroads

By Stuart Kemp,
Thursday, 6th May 2021
Unforgotten - an ITV show but available on Netflix (credit: ITV)
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Should traditional broadcasters get special protection in an era of streamers backed by global media giants? An RTS panel weighs the arguments.

Public service broadcasters have a “fleetingly short space of time” to find a better financing model – and without guaranteed prominence on smart TVs, “PSB is dead, it is over”. These were just two of the stark warnings aired at an RTS panel discussion “Small beer or big deal: Should we still care about PSB?”. 

But the panellists also looked at what the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5 could themselves do to adapt and thrive. The discussion, chaired by Jane Martinson, Marjorie Deane professor of financial journalism at City, University of London, ranged widely. Key issues included: the introduction of legislation to ensure that TV manufacturers have operating systems that carry PSB apps; a better way to measure the prominence of PSBs in the broadcasting landscape; and a clarion call to radically change the main operators’ funding models.

They started by chewing over the implications of the publication of Ofcom’s Small Screen: Big Debate consultation on the future of PSB and the recent DCMS select committee report on the subject.

“We have to get beyond broadcasting,” said Emily Bell, founding director and Leonard Tow professor of journalism at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia University. “What does public service technology look like, what does it mean to have public service technology? We don’t really have much idea how prominence works in the digital world because we don’t have any access to how people are seeing things.”

Both Ofcom and the select committee agreed that maintaining prominence and universality – to enable audiences to find content across platforms amid myriad viewing choices – remains important for PSBs.

“There needs to be political, legislative intervention about how you guarantee prominence for the PSBs – and that isn’t just about making sure they have prominence on the platforms,” said STV Studios Managing Director David Mortimer. He noted that, as part of its submission to Ofcom, the BBC had warned that 80% of all TVs produced by 2023 would have operating systems installed with no incentive whatsoever to put any of the PSBs in a prominent position.

“It is just as important that we have legislation to regulate the TV manufacturers in a world where people aren’t sticking an aerial into the back of their televisions,” he said.

Jennifer Anafi-Acquah, an assistant producer working across factual, specialist factual and entertainment formats for PSBs and SVoD services, said that younger audiences were moving away from the PSBs: “As a viewer, I am receiving my content less and less from traditional PSB formats.” She acknowledged that PSBs had backed many production companies, and created the opportunity for her to build a career.

With Anafi-Acquah’s generation making viewing choices from smart-TV menus, built-in apps and social media platforms, “if the PSBs aren’t prominent offerings on smart TVs, then PSB is dead, it is over,” said Mortimer. “Unless we find a way of making it clear that this is an available option – even then, the future looks really bleak.”

Ed Vaizey, a former culture minister and now a peer, noted the demand for attention and the increasing tendency of younger generations to look to other platforms, particularly social media, was a pressure on PSBs.

“Prominence is clearly the issue that people are debating now, and ensuring prominence… is much easier said than done,” said Vaizey. “It is a hugely complex and technical thing to do.”

From left: Jane Martinson, David Mortimer, Emily Bell, Lord Vaizey and Jennifer Anafi-Acquah

Mortimer pointed out that the financial realities faced by PSBs meant that producers had to sell their content to Netflix and others. “Unless politicians are prepared to fight for a properly funded BBC and a fairly regulated ITV, STV and Channel 4, then the [PSB] game is up,” he said.

The PSBs urgently needed to find a financing model that worked in the streaming era: “We have a fleetingly short space of time as creatives to focus on this challenge. Legislators have a very short space of time to work out what can be done at a national level to make sure the PSBs can survive, let alone prosper.” 

The panel debated whether the BBC should switch to a subscription model.

“I wonder whether it was foolish to say to the licence-fee payer, ‘You get everything free on the iPlayer for ever’,” said Mortimer, a former long-serving BBC executive, who now heads STV Studios, having run his own production company and worked at NBCUniversal in the US. “It potentially undercuts the BBC’s ability to make a change, given the financial crisis it faces.”

Vaizey regarded the answer as partly dependent on whether people thought the BBC could depend on a single revenue stream, irrespective of that being a licence fee or a subscription. “It is not wrong for the BBC to have a commercial arm,” he said. “It used to sell me DVDs of shows. One has to be flexible about it.”

Anafi-Acquah believed that consumers, particularly younger ones, were now used to paying for content and buying subscriptions. “If the quality of the content is great, people will pay,” she argued. 

Bell agreed that there was room for funding innovation at the BBC. “The licence fee is a historic anomaly. It managed to establish this idea in the public imagination that they owned something. Subscriptions are always transactions. It would be nice to preserve some of that communal ownership that the introduction of the licence fee created in 1922.”

She emphasised that audiovisual policy in the UK needed to protect the PSBs, together with the cultural and democratic values they represent, from the onslaught of commercial platforms. “You have to think about the regulatory landscape and the large platforms. That has been done in Europe, but now that we are no longer part of Europe, we have to think about that separately,” urged Bell. “This is not about changing everything tomorrow. This is about a 10- or 20-year pathway from where we are now to where we might be going.”

She continued: “You have to regulate the platforms, create incentives for public service technologies that go beyond the existing broadcasters. But you also have to have the mindset of protecting that part of the economy.”

With incentives, Bell suggested, the PSBs could decide where the markets were, what to prioritise and [how to] cultivate something that sat outside the pressures of the market. “The one thing we have learnt is that the market does not know best and if you surrender everything to the market you lose a great deal.”

But if the market doesn’t know what is best, what next, asked Martinson? 

“If it were left to a completely free market and people only paid for what they valued or what they wanted”, the consequences would be unpredictable, Anafi-Acquah worried. “PSBs do a lot that is unknown and there’s a lot of value in this that is unknown.… We would be in danger of losing a lot of the behind-the-scenes benefits that PSB has provided for the infrastructure.”

She reiterated her desire to operate in a world where there were more partnerships with SVoDs: “It would be good if PSB content could be made available in co-operation with platforms such as YouTube, because that is where younger audiences are viewing content.

“From my perspective, going forward would be going to where the audiences already are, rather than trying to run uphill to bring back audiences to traditional forms.” 

Report by Stuart Kemp. ‘Small beer or big deal: Should we still care about PSB?’ was an RTS event held on 26 April. It was chaired by Jane Martinson and produced by Jonathan Simon, Vicky Fairclough and Kirsten Stevenson.

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