Just hours before Parliament was dissolved at one minute past midnight on 6 November, the House of Lords’ Communications and Digital Committee published a report calling for urgent action to safeguard the future of public service broadcasting. The report – ‘Public service broadcasting: as vital as ever ‘– points to the current threats and calls for urgent measures to safeguard the future of broadcasting as a vital part of UK society and democracy. It warns that public service broadcasters (PSBs) need to be better supported to ensure that they can continue to produce high-quality drama and documentaries which reflect and examine UK culture. In return, the broadcasters need to adapt to ensure that they serve and reflect all audiences.
The committee also raises concerns about the integrity of the licence fee as the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence, describing how it has been undermined by a succession of settlements which were carried out behind closed doors. It condemns the decision to hand over responsibility to the BBC for free licences for the over-75s, saying: “The BBC should not have been offered, or accepted, responsibility for over-75s’ licences.” The committee calls for a new, independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee and recommends the establishment of a new body called the BBC Funding Commission to help set the licence fee.
In its background introduction the report reminds us that “twenty years ago most people relied on five free-to-air terrestrial channels provided by public service broadcasters (PSBs) with a statutory public service remit. The output of commercial broadcasters was available to only a minority of viewers who subscribed to Sky or cable services. Since then choice has increased dramatically. In 1998 the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Bureau (an independent body which monitors viewing figures) reported on 57 channels, while in 2018 it reported on 342 (at the time of writing this was the most recent year for which figures were available). Television was generally watched at the time of broadcast—recording on VHS was the exception. The introduction of technology such as the digital video recorder (such as TiVo) and internet-enabled catch-up services has enabled viewers to watch TV when it suits them. For some, especially many young people, watching so-called ‘linear’ TV in real-time is now the exception rather than the norm. Viewers also watch content on a range of devices including smartphones, laptops and tablets.”
Faced with a revolution in technology, the unprecedented competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other subscription video on demand services and subsequent changes in viewing behaviour, the report includes the following recommendations:
Listed sports events: The committee recommends a modest increase in the number of listed sports events, which must be shown free to air. This could include The Ashes and The Open Golf Championship.
TV production: The UK production sector is a national success story, but it is at risk of reaching full capacity and overheating. The committee recommends changes to High-End TV tax relief and the Apprenticeship Levy, as well as a review of the Terms of Trade between PSBs and independent producers to determine whether they should still apply to larger companies (see para 125 – 132 of the Report).
Regulation and funding: The Government should support PSBs in the new technological environment, and think very carefully before imposing any further regulatory or financial burdens on them. The committee does not support a levy on subscription video on demand services at the moment.
The report’s summary sets out thirty three paragraph recommendations and the report itself has been welcomed by the NUJ. Commenting, General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “This report raises clear alarm bells about the future of public service broadcasting in the UK and the perils it currently faces. Given the current parlous levels of public discourse, and political divisions that exist, quality well-resourced journalism is needed more than ever and public service broadcasting is vital. The NUJ agrees that urgent action is needed to address the challenges public service broadcasting faces and this should be prioritised by the incoming government after the general election.”
Among those giving evidence to the committee were Professor Des Freedman and Dr.Tom Mills from the Media Reform Coalition. Their evidence can be found at: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/communications-committee/public-service-broadcasting-in-the-age-of-video-on-demand/oral/101527.html
BECTU (Prospect) the broadcasting union also gave evidence at:http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/communications-committee/public-service-broadcasting-in-the-age-of-video-on-demand/oral/101810.html
The full report is at:https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201920/ldselect/ldcomuni/16/16.pdf