Ofcom calls for stronger system of public service media fit for the digital age

15 July 2021

Ofcom is today recommending a radical overhaul of laws to make sure that public service media survives and thrives in the digital age.

Our recommendations to Government mark the conclusion of Small Screen: Big Debate – an in-depth review on the future of public service media (PSM). The report calls for the renewal of the PSM system so it can flourish for the next decade and beyond.

The public service broadcasters are those providing Channel 3 services, Channel 4, Channel 5, S4C and the BBC. While all BBC public service television channels are PSB channels, only the main channels of each of the other public service broadcasters have this status.

During our review, we spoke to audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the UK, and met with broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts in the UK and abroad. We received over 100 responses, which focused on two main issues – the importance of PSM for UK viewers, and the urgent need to update the system to ensure its future sustainability.

Public service content matters – but it's under increasing threat

Our review makes clear that public service programming remains highly valued by UK audiences, and the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has only reinforced this.

Our research highlighted the special importance viewers place on high-quality, trusted and accurate news, as well as a passion for soaps, drama and live sports and programmes which reflect the diversity of the UK’s nations and regions. Public service media is also central to the UK creative economy, with around £3bn spent each year on programming across a broad range of genres.

Between 2015 and 2020, broadcast viewing dropped by 24 minutes per person each day. 60% of all UK households subscribed to an on-demand service by September 2020. 47% of adults use online services as their main way of watching TV and films, rising to two-thirds among 18-24 year-olds.

But, with global competition intensifying, viewers are no longer bound by television schedules and are able to pick and choose content from a range of online providers and platforms. Given these changes, the UK’s broadcasting industry is facing its greatest challenge.

A step-change in broadcasters' digital plans – and an overhaul of legislation

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

So today, we are recommending that the Government brings forward legislation to achieve a number of aims:

  • 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 powers to monitor and enforce this, 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. So we recommend 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.

Transform and collaborate to compete

Changes to the existing framework alone are not likely to be enough to preserve the benefits of public service media and further approaches are required.

  • PSM providers must forge more ambitious strategic partnerships. 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. Channel 4 and Sky, for example, have recently expanded their existing partnership to cover content, technology and innovation.
  • Other companies should be encouraged to produce PSM programming. The Government should consider how to encourage new providers to help deliver public service media in future. That could mean harnessing the broad range of high-quality, UK-based original news, drama and arts programming offered by existing commercial providers, such as Sky and Discovery. Or encouraging new providers of PSM or PSM-like content - for example on social media platforms - to target audiences who don’t connect with broadcasters on traditional TV platforms. Updated legislation should allow for complementary PSM providers to be added to the regulatory framework to maximise flexibility into the future.
  • Economic incentives to broaden PSM provision. The Government should assess the case for financial support to add value for audiences in certain areas – such as regional programming. This could be done through a range of incentives such as contestable funding or tax relief.

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 twenty 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.

Dame Melanie Dawes, Chief Executive, Ofcom