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Ofcom calls for biggest shake-up to public service broadcasting in 20 years

Organisation is calling for the UK's regulatory system to be urgently updated

UK media regulator Ofcom is calling on the government to overhaul current legislation in order to ensure that public service media (PSM) survives and thrives in the digital age.

The recommendations mark the end of Ofcom’s Small Screen: Big Debate review, which launched in July 2019 to consider the future of public service broadcasters in the UK.

To secure the future of PSM, Ofcom said broadcasters must accelerate their digital plans in order to maintain a strong link with audiences, and the regulatory system also needs to be urgently updated.

The organisation laid out four recommendations for the government to bring forward primary legislation:

  • Modernise the PSM objectives: New legislation should secure and strengthen PSM’s most important features: a broad range of programming that reflects all parts of the UK, and the ability to engage the widest possible audiences. There should also be a new objective to support the UK’s creative economy.
  • Update availability and prominence rules to include digital platforms: Broadcasters and connected TV platforms are struggling to reach commercial agreements, meaning it’s harder for audiences to find PSM content on digital platforms than on traditional TV. So new rules are needed to require PSM providers to offer their on-demand services to popular TV platforms. In turn, platforms should be required to include and give appropriate prominence to PSM content. Ofcom should be given monitoring and enforcement powers, including the ability to resolve commercial disputes.
  • Update production rules for PSM content: If PSM providers are to reach all audiences, they need to be able to commission content which they can deliver flexibly – both online and on broadcast TV. Ofcom recommends that commissioning rules designed to support independent productions should apply to all PSM content, regardless of whether it is commissioned for broadcast TV or online. This would include programmes exclusively shown on online services.
  • Update the rules for PSM providers: Broadcast licences need modernising to cover content produced across broadcast TV and online. PSM providers should also be afforded flexibility to innovate and respond to technological and market changes. Quotas should remain to secure important PSM programming, like news, and to safeguard the quality of traditional broadcast TV for those audiences who continue to rely on them. PSM providers should be required to set out clear plans to deliver against their objectives and report annually on their performance, with Ofcom holding them to account.

Ofcom is also calling on public service broadcasters to forge more ambitious strategic partnerships, such as the one between Channel 4 and Sky which covers content, technology and innovation.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive said: “Our creative sector is the envy of the world, but public service media is facing a triple threat – from large global players, viewers turning towards online services, and increasing funding pressures. If we’re to preserve public service media and its outstanding content for future generations, change needs to happen – and fast.

“That’s why we’re recommending the biggest shake-up to public service broadcasting in 20 years. Our plan of action sets out how the industry, Government and Ofcom can together build a stronger system of public service media that can thrive in the digital age.”