Listening to the needs of viewers and listeners

24 November 2021

Speech by Maggie Carver to the VLV Annual Conference, 24 November 2021.

Introduction

Thank you Stewart, and good morning everybody.

I’m thrilled to have the chance to address the VLV, even virtually. Of course, it would have been better still to see you in person; but as we seek an ending to this pandemic, I feel enormously privileged to speak to you all for the first time. Being the Interim Chair, it might be the last!

There’s no doubt the last two years have been tough. Many people have wrestled with the effects of coronavirus. Many have lost loved ones. Others have struggled to maintain their livelihoods.

For the broadcasting industry we care so much about, productions, advertising and incomes have all been disrupted. But for all this, the enduring strength of our TV and radio sectors shone through.

Public service broadcasting has emerged strong – perhaps, in some ways, even stronger than before. During lockdown, many people found more time for specialist programmes about history, science and the arts – programmes that provide perspective and sanctuary from the demands of daily life. As a musician, I was especially encouraged to see Radio 3 achieve its highest audience share for years.

The value our PSBs provide is hard to quantify; but I’ll have a go. Together, they offer around 30,000 hours of new UK content every year – from drama and arts, to entertainment and children’s TV. To put it in context, that is more than 100 times more than commercial streaming services.

The importance of news

And of all the genres, we know that trusted, accurate news remains – by far – the single most important feature of PSB for viewers and listeners. People want strong and robust journalism that cuts through different viewpoints, provides clarity and informs them about the world. In an age of disruption, volatility, misinformation and anxiety, this has never mattered more.

News is a particular passion of mine. I see it as fundamentally important to our society and democracy. I was proud to chair ITN, and I believe the commercial PSBs – alongside the BBC, and Sky News – are hugely important in providing the rich variety of high-quality news and current affairs programmes.

Let’s not underestimate the power of that integrity and expertise. All of our PSBs maintain strict journalistic standards, checking their facts and sources. That is what enables the public to trust their news.

So often today, we hear about mistrust – in companies, institutions or individuals. Much of that is fuelled by social media. This year, we found that barely a third of people who use social media trust it for news. In the first week of lockdown alone, social media served up false information about coronavirus to almost half of online adults.

But now compare TV news – where trust has actually risen over recent years. During the pandemic, our news institutions led the fight against misinformation. Early on, as people looked for reliable, impartial information, our PSBs achieved their highest audience share in more than six years. More than eight in ten people rated them as trusted sources.

Now we cannot take that engagement for granted. Viewers and listeners gain greater choice with every passing day. Our research last year also showed that lockdowns speeded up the shift to streaming services. People spent twice as long on services like Netflix and Disney+.

Children, already spending an hour of their day on YouTube, added services like TikTok to their media lives. So we cannot doubt that tomorrow’s adults will watch less TV than the generation before. And we cannot assume they will place as much value on PSB news as we do today.

Ofcom is now thinking as widely as possible about the commercial future for PSBs. What support can regulators provide to ensure audiences keep the things they value? As one example, take the terms under which broadcasters provide news to online platforms. Are the revenues here sufficient to support their business?

Complex issues like these need a joined-up approach, so we are working alongside the CMA as part of a new forum with other digital regulators. We will examine all these questions alongside fellow experts.

Role of Ofcom and its Board

Will we get the answers right? I think that’s an important question. Because trust in the media is only one side of the story; people also need to have trust in the regulator.

That is where I, and my fellow Board members, have a big role to play in supporting our senior management. So I thought it might help to say a bit more about that job.

First, I think there is a general risk people expect – and therefore worry – that Ofcom might get dragged into ‘culture wars’, or taking subjective, political positions: whether we are regulating the BBC, or ruling on complex broadcasting cases, such as Piers Morgan’s comments about Meghan Markle.

In fact, we hold our independence and impartiality dear. Our executives make every decision on the evidence, without personal, political or commercial influence.

We expect to be accountable – not just to Parliament, and courts of law, but also to the British people. We should be judged on our effectiveness as a regulator, because our work can affect everybody – from the viewer, listener or broadband-user at home, to the small-business owner or investor.

It’s vital that people can trust Ofcom to make calm, clear-headed judgments. That is why we operate under codes and clear laws, and apply these to all our work – at every level, from junior policy staff through to senior management and the Board itself.

Much of that work might not always attract attention: such as tackling violent hate speech on less talked-about TV channels; or managing the airwaves for international broadcasters at COP26. But if it relates to big, popular shows like Good Morning Britain or Love Island, which can generate thousands of complaints, then of course it leads to headlines. Every one of those complaints needs to be properly assessed – and not by the Board.

In fact, the Board does not get involved in broadcasting standards decisions. It hasn’t done so in my time on the Board, nor that of my predecessor. Instead, these are made by an expert, specialist team within Ofcom, who have decades of combined experience in applying the Broadcasting Code and taking account of the relevant laws – such as people’s rights to free expression.

The Board does something different. We provide independent, objective challenge across Ofcom’s work, and we shape and agree the organisation’s strategy. We make sure Ofcom is governed in the right way, approve the budget and work plan, and support the executive by reviewing major policy areas.

Collectively, our Non-Executive Directors have decades of experience in very senior positions in the commercial sectors we regulate. Overall the Board brings experience from across the private and public sectors – from media to telecoms, charities to the City.

Eyes on the road

I hope that experience helps us to look across the economy and society, and to anticipate change. Sometimes regulators get accused of spending too much time looking in the rear-view mirror; of stepping in after the event, when things are already moving on.

But in a sector as fast-moving as communications, we cannot afford to spend too much time looking back. So a lot of my focus – and that of the Board and the executive – has been on ensuring Ofcom keeps its eyes on the road ahead.

Take public service broadcasting, which is the unrivalled passion of the VLV. To keep our PSBs relevant and visible to future generations – to ensure they remain at the heart of our cultural landscape – we cannot miss a beat.

We must understand people’s changing needs and attitudes to the media around them; which is why we never stop asking them what they think.

We need to keep pace with unprecedented change, understanding the positive impact of new services, but also how they might affect the future business case for the content people love. And we must look to the future, anticipating how emerging technology might change things again.

Our technology team at Ofcom is doing just that. They are led by Sachin Jogia, a leading technologist who also knows a thing or two about smart speakers: he joined us from Amazon, where he oversaw voice-activated services – an important growth area in radio and television.

Similarly, our strategy and research teams are examining questions such as the future for TV and online advertising, and what lasting impact the pandemic might have on production and commissioning.

When it comes to the BBC, we need to keep ourrules effective, which means understanding how people are choosing to access programmes – not just on traditional stations, but online. As you know, we are planning to update the BBC’s Operating Licence to reflect that.

If we don’t change this approach, the value of BBC content risks being tied up in services that no longer reach everybody. In particular, that value will no longer be protected for younger people, without whose time and money the future BBC could not exist.

That is why we are proposing new rules that focus on how the BBC provides for viewers and listeners – using measures like quality, reach and impact of its programmes.

But as we have made clear, we still need quotas. We want to secure certain types of programmes that people really value; to keep the BBC distinctive; and to make sure it continues to serve people who rely on traditional broadcast TV and radio.

Universal access

Finally, at the same time as looking ahead, we cannot neglect the present. As we seek to sustain PSB for the next generation, we must not fail those who have already enjoyed and supported PSB for a generation or more.

Because if one thing is true of PSB, it is that everybody matters.

During Small Screen: Big Debate, we heard about the importance of universal access to public-service broadcasting. The particular strength of PSB comes from its ability to appeal to people from all backgrounds, and its ambition to reach and serve everyone in the UK.

The VLV made that case strongly. So did viewers and listeners – including those who spend most time online. In fact, a quarter of 16-24s – more than any other age group – told us they value PSB services which are available to everyone.

We saw the importance of that in August, when a transmitter fire led to hundreds of thousands of Freeview viewers losing their signal. We are reviewing what happened, and working with the transmitter owner, Arqiva, to make sure it protects viewers from similar incidents in future.

We felt it again in September, when subtitles, singing and audio description were disrupted on Channels 4 and 5. Millions of deaf, hard-of-hearing, blind or partially-sighted people lost out. Ofcom met the broadcasters to demand answers. Now we are examining what action might be required to ensure they do not find themselves in a similar situation again.

TV and radio matter to everybody; so everybody must be able to enjoy them – wherever they live; whatever impairments might affect them; and whether or not they are online. Even after a big rise in internet use during the pandemic, 6% of UK homes – more than 1.5 million – choose not to connect.

So for all the talk of firesticks and Facebook, let’s not forget about Freeview – which is still the biggest TV service in the UK, used by 18 million households.

Freeview – like FM radio – is a proven, affordable platform. We expect it to remain a major route into public-service channels for millions of viewers, for many years to come. When it comes to managing the UK’s airwaves – which is a big part of Ofcom’s daily work – we expect that PSBs will have access to Freeview spectrum for at least the rest of this decade.

Conclusion

Those, then, are the some of the ways we want to secure PSB for the future.

Listening to the needs of viewers and listeners. Anticipating and understanding changes in behaviour and technology. Preserving the value of the BBC and commercial PSBs, for the present generation as well as the next. And ensuring PSBs reach everyone – not just in the online world, but offline too.

As we put our plans in place, we will keep listening to the VLV because your opinion, perspective and expertise is at the heart of the broadcasting debate in this country.

And we will always work on the evidence, independently, without fear or favour, on behalf of everyone in society.

Thank you.