Dame Melanie Dawes introduces Small Screen: Big Debate

05 October 2020

Good morning, and welcome to Small Screen: Big Debate – a discussion led by Ofcom over the next three days, on the future of public service media.

When we launched our nationwide debate last year, no-one could have imagined we’d be holding it now in a world of social distancing, with such enormous disruption to our daily lives.

But throughout this terrible pandemic, the enduring strengths of our country’s TV and radio industry have shone through.

We have a unique broadcasting and media landscape in the UK. A powerful mix of public and commercial firms, large and small, from the BBC and Sky to our vibrant independent production sector. Together with our national and regional media, this is central to our culture, our creative economy and our global voice.

It is a system that has always been fuelled by private-sector innovation and investment, alongside public-sector actions. That includes regulation which holds everyone to clear, high standards.

At its heart is our network of public service broadcasting – a blend of public and private institutions, universally available, with a remit to provide content that enriches our culture, society and democracy.

In the last few months alone, the industry has given us dramas like Normal People and Chernobyl, and brilliant comedy from Derry Girls to This Way Up. It has provided outstanding news and current affairs – such as Sky News’ coverage of the Hong Kong protests, and ITN’s Election programme from this building.

And our world-class radio landscape has expanded further, with Times Radio and Scala adding new voices to news and music.

All of that in a year when public service has never been more important. As our society faced common challenges, anxieties and restrictions under lockdown, PSB staff were rightly declared key workers. They have brought us together through shared experiences of drama, learning and entertainment.

People have sought out reliable, impartial news, helping the PSBs to achieve their highest audience share in more than six years.

But at the same time, the pandemic has challenged every aspect of our industry. Productions have been disrupted or halted, TV advertising is down heavily, and sport has lost its spectators. Audiences are volatile, revenues are down, and there are fundamental questions about the future of public funding.

So just as coronavirus has demonstrated the strengths of our industry, and its importance to the public, it also reminded us how vulnerable things are in the face of change.

The changing landscape

I’m speaking to you from the ITN building on Gray’s Inn Road in London – one of the centres of our news industry for a generation.

Ever since ITN and ITV first joined the broadcasting landscape back in the 1950s, change and innovation have been hallmarks of this industry. From colour, cable, satellite and digital… through to HD, iPlayer and Netflix.

And if change is a constant, the current pace of evolution is unprecedented. Technology is disrupting how content is found by the audience – from smartphones to smart speakers – and how it is funded. Viewers and listeners gain greater choice with every passing day.

Our research shows the pandemic speeded up the shift to streaming services. People spent twice as long on these services during the lockdown.

Time spent online reached record highs. I know my family would have struggled during lockdown without social media to keep us connected, and the internet to keep us informed.

TikTok more than doubled its reach between January and April, and services like Instagram and YouTube are no longer the preserve of children and younger adults. In fact, our data during the early lockdown showed social media use growing fastest among over-55s, reaching almost an hour a day.

With all these channels vying for our attention, it’s no surprise the audience has become ‘atomised’. People are consuming a wider range of shorter, tailored content, on a larger number of devices – which, together, command more viewing time than live TV.

But for everything we have gained through change and innovation, this is also a moment when we risk losing something we care about.

Broadcasting, like every long-standing industry, is seeing age-old business models undermined. Public service broadcasting faces intense competition.

Together, we need to identify what programmes and services matter most to our society, culture and economy. Then we have a chance to build a system that keeps the things we cherish, but also benefits from the innovation around us.

To help us do that, let’s remind ourselves what people really appreciate about public service broadcasting …

What audiences want

The striking news is how much viewers and listeners still value and support public-service content. Audiences say the PSBs help them understand the world, through genres like news, history, science, drama and the arts.

And trusted, accurate news is the single most important feature of public service broadcasting for viewers and listeners. Audiences value strong and robust journalism that seeks to cut through opposing viewpoints, provide clarity and inform them about the world.

Never has this role been more critical than during the pandemic.

In just the first week of lockdown, we found almost half of online adults had seen false or misleading information about the virus. At the same time, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 were all rated as trusted sources of information by more than eight in ten people.

Our research also shows consistently that people look for programmes that authentically portray modern life across the UK’s nations and regions. They want shows that reflect their experiences, and content they can trust. For example, two-thirds of adults expect the PSBs to portray their nation or region fairly.

For years, audiences’ trust has been built on programmes made for – and about – them.

Together the PSBs provide 32,000 hours of new UK content every year – from drama and arts, to entertainment and children’s TV. To put that in context, it’s around 125 times more than commercial streaming services. It powers our creative economy, as well as serving our citizens.

But an important ingredient of trust is for people to feel represented – not only in the content they see and hear, but by the broadcasters themselves. Our PSBs are universally available, but we know access to the industry is not.

Disabled people, women and those from minority ethnic backgrounds remain underrepresented. Many of you are seeking to address that.  Ofcom, too, has much more to do in this area.

Class and geography are just as important. Compared to the UK population, TV workers are about twice as likely to have grown up in a professional home, and twice as likely to have been privately educated. Most broadcasting jobs are still based in London, even though four-fifths of the population live elsewhere.

Over the next few years, making further progress on diversity – in its broadest sense – is essential if the PSBs are to continue to hold public trust and remain relevant.  


And our industry will need to navigate even faster, wider change. We have an historic opportunity to find a new future for public service broadcasting, and secure its place in the lives of younger viewers and listeners.

Our industry, like so many others, is finding new ways to capture the public’s imagination and serve its needs. So I want this week to celebrate our industry’s strengths, as well as exploring possible answers to the immense challenges we face.

You have my commitment that Ofcom will keep lending clear evidence and analysis to this debate.

We will examine how regulation needs to change; what content matters; how it could be delivered; and how it could be paid for. In the winter, we’ll consult on recommendations to Government about the future of public service media.

Meanwhile, over the next three days we’ll hear from senior figures across the industry. And the leaders of the four biggest public-service broadcasters will come together, for the first time, in a live discussion on Wednesday.

We want to hear from you too. So please keep watching, tell us what you think – and I hope you enjoy the week.