This op-ed by Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom Content Group Director, first appeared in the The Telegraph on 13 October 2017
When was the golden age of broadcasting? Was it the 1970s, which gave us Morecambe and Wise, The Sweeney and the Generation Game? Or the 80s, which produced Channel 4 News, Grange Hill and EastEnders?
These are iconic shows. But for viewers who really value choice, perhaps the golden age is now. The British public have never enjoyed programmes of such quality and diversity, live and on-demand, across many devices, catering for every age – from Topsy and Tim to The Young Pope, Gogglebox and Narcos.
That choice comes at a price for the public service broadcasters whose job is to bring cultural and educational benefits to the whole UK, reflecting and informing our daily lives.
These companies – the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 – still command half of TV viewing. The BBC accounts for half our radio listening. But the innovation and choice offered by Netflix, Sky, Amazon and others mean we’re slowly spending less time with traditional channels.
Catch-up players, smartphones and voice recognition are changing how we find TV programmes. New viewing habits mean audiences are becoming harder to measure. And broadcasters face a tough advertising market.
So as the regulator, Ofcom must strike a careful balance. We need to keep broadcasting competitive, while nurturing the public service broadcasters who make such a vital contribution to society. Never have these roles been more important. People expect choice and quality; but they also need trusted voices to guide them through an age of anxiety, insecurity and volatility.
In particular, we need a BBC that delivers for its whole audience, and its new Royal Charter puts distinctiveness at its heart. For the first time, Ofcom, an independent regulator, is working on behalf of audiences to ensure the BBC delivers for them.
We’ve set challenging new rules to keep the BBC to a high standard. In future, three quarters of the BBC’s main channel schedules must be new productions, made to order for UK audiences.
We’re increasing the amount of original documentaries Radio 4 must broadcast, and maintaining the existing safeguard for its religious programmes. The BBC should continue to cater for a range of interests such as health, consumer issues, and rural affairs. And its children’s channels will show hundreds of hours of brand new shows each year.
Every part of the UK should get its fair share of the BBC’s creative and economic benefits. So, for the first time, the BBC must spend the same amount on programmes, per head, in all four UK Nations.
While the BBC remains the cornerstone of UK broadcasting, we have a duty to maintain and strengthen the whole public service broadcasting system.
Looking ahead, we’ll consider whether the traditional channels are easy to find – on tablets, TVs and smartphones – for people who value their programmes. How will viewers find them in a world that’s becoming increasingly on-demand and personalised? We must consider this to ensure the public service broadcasters are not drowned out.
We will look at funding for UK content, the health of the production industry, and whether public service broadcasters can retain access to big-budget programmes as they compete on a global stage. And we’ll consider the benefits that they receive, such as guaranteed airwaves to reach every TV set, and whether these are sufficient.
In fact, we will look across the whole of UK broadcasting to ensure it delivers for audiences. All our findings will be based on evidence – including the changing tastes and needs of British audiences. Our world-class broadcasters deserve clear, fair and strong regulation, and Ofcom’s decisions will be taken independently of political or commercial pressure.
The UK has the most vibrant, creative and innovative TV and radio industries in the world. We’ll keep listening to viewers and listeners to understand their priorities. And we’ll work with broadcasters to uphold the trust and high standards that audiences expect.