UK’s BBC, ITV, C4 & C5 ‘unlikely to survive’ without overhaul, says Ofcom

UK broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and ViacomCBS-owned Channel 5 are “unlikely to survive” without an overhaul of media regulation, according to an explosive report from the country’s media body Ofcom.

According to its review of public service broadcasting (PSB), UK regulator Ofcom has found that public service content is important to audiences and the creative economy but that it is at a critical juncture.

Despite the continued success of British content and audiences taking increased value in seeing their own areas on screen, much of this is coming at the expense of traditional PSB channels – namely the BBC, ITV, Scotland’s STV, Channel 4, Wales-focused S4C and C5.

Streaming focus & multiple threats

A lot of the most highly-considered content comes from private companies like Sky and Discovery, which operate outside the PSB system, while the majority of younger viewers are turning towards global streaming services.

The report notes that only 38% of 2019 viewing time from 16-34 year-olds came from traditional broadcast content, compared to 67% of all adults. More concerningly, two in five streaming viewers said that they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all within five years.

Also posing a problem for pubcasters is a ‘triple funding threat’ in the form of decreased ad revenue, the investment required to grow digital services, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In order to combat this potential decline, Ofcom has proposed that PSB laws and regulations must be radically overhauled. It notes that the rules and laws around public service broadcasting are outdated, and stem from the early days of the internet.

Framework & financing 

The regulator has called for a new framework that will establish clear goals for PSBs and give them greater choice over how they achieve them. It also has proposed quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news, with Ofcom able to hold broadcasters to account to these targets.

Ofcom has also called for the creation of new public-service media providers that could be granted prominence and availability benefits currently enjoyed by PSBs.

In addition, the regulator has suggested that PSBs develop stronger relationships with other companies, particularly on platforms and distribution, in order to help them scale quickly.

Dame Melanie Dawes

The final proposal is a new model for stable funding, with a range of options set out. These include International comparisons, full or part subscription models, and cross-media funding such as local or regional media funds that would support collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers.

The BBC in particular has faced ongoing challenges to its licence fee-funding model, with calls by some for a subscription fee to replace the existing charge.

However, in the Royal Television Society (RTS)’s online Steve Hewlett Debate yesterday, C4 boss Alex Mahon defended the BBC’s current model, adding that “you have to have something better – and I haven’t seen anything better yet.”

‘Urgent need’

Ofcom added that while its traditional broadcasters remain “among the finest in the world”, the UK industry faces a tough future having witnessed “a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.”

Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom CEO, added: “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.

“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 also said that it will launch a review of how the UK production industry operates in the new year.

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