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Ofcom: Traditional broadcasting at risk ‘without radical shake-up’

Regulator suggests PSBs could become full or partly subscription-based.

Ofcom has warned the UK’s traditional broadcasting sector is at risk from the online world unless regulation is overhauled.

The body said broadcasters must accelerate their transformation for the digital age and must create new partnerships in order to survive.

Ofcom’s findings are part of the regulator’s Small Screen: Big Debate review of public service broadcasting in the UK.

It says that while public service content still matters hugely to people and society, it has reached a critical juncture. Audiences are increasingly turning away from the traditional PSB channels – the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 – in favour of global streaming and online services offering vast libraries and personalised content, Ofcom states. Last year, only 38 per cent of 16-34s’ viewing (and 67 per cent among all adults) was to traditional broadcast content. Two in five viewers of streaming services say they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.

Ofcom adds that public service broadcasting also faces a triple funding threat from falls in advertising revenue; the cost of needing to grow digital services while maintaining traditional ones; and the coronavirus pandemic, which has raised costs and quickened viewers’ shift to online platforms.

It has laid out a vision for the future, which Ofcom says will help preserve the vital benefits of public service broadcasting. That vision includes:

    • Laws and regulation must be overhauled.  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 intends to launch a review of how the UK production industry operates in early 2021.
    • Other companies could become public-service media providers. Alongside the content provided by existing PSBs, new providers could help deliver public-service media in future. According to Ofcom, this new content could focus on specific groups of people or types of programme. They could be granted prominence and availability benefits that are currently only enjoyed by today’s PSBs, and also be incentivised by tax relief and contestable funding.
    • A new model for stable funding.  Ofcom has set out a range of options for the government, including full or part subscription models. There is also potential for cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local investigative news.
    • Partnerships could help PSBs better compete – as well as connect with audiences. Deeper relationships between PSBs and other companies – particularly on platforms and distribution – 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.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom chief executive, said: “Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world. But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.

“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.

Dawes added, “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.”

Ofcom is now consulting on its proposals until 16th March and will then make recommendations to the UK government.