The Provision of Current Affairs
1.1 As part of its duty to assess the effectiveness of public service delivery on television, Ofcom is conducting a series of bi-annual practitioner symposia. One of the key purposes of these events is to engage practitioners and other informed commentators in in-depth investigations into how well the public service purposes are being achieved by the broadcasters. The outputs of these symposia will also help to inform the future regulation of key genres of public service programming.
1.2 The first of these symposia entitled ‘The Future of Current Affairs’ took place on 28th March 2006 and examined one of Ofcom's key purposes of public service broadcasting: “to inform ourselves and others and to increase our understanding of the world through news, information and analysis of current events and ideas”.
1.3 The goal of this symposium was to reflect on the existing provision of current affairs programming by the public service broadcasters, to examine how current affairs provision may change moving forward towards digital switchover and to consider options for the delivery and regulation of current affairs programming in the future. The scope of the symposium was limited to public service television and did not include current affairs on radio.
1.4 The focus of this report is to provide a summary of the symposium itself and synopses of three pieces of original research conducted by Ofcom to inform debate at the event. These were:
- An audit of the current affairs output on the network public service broadcasters
- An audit of the current affairs output in the Nations and Regions; and
- Qualitative research into viewers' attitudes towards current affairs programming
Current Affairs – The Network Content Analysis
1.5 The audit of current affairs programming quantified and analysed the network current affairs output of the terrestrial public service broadcasters: BBC One, BBC Two, ITV1, Channel 4 and Five. The audit examined current affairs output over the six month period from 1 July 2005 to 31 December 2005.
1.6 Current affairs programming is defined as:
A programme which contains explanation and analysis of current events and ideas, including material dealing with political or industrial controversy or with public policy. Also included are investigative programmes with contemporary significance.
1.7 The audit stemmed from the Public Service Broadcasting Review. The goal of this piece of work was to gain an in depth knowledge of the amount, range and breadth of existing current affairs output in order to establish how well the viewer is presently served by current affairs programming on the terrestrial public service broadcasters. The main thrusts of the audit were an investigation into the volume, range and scheduling of current affairs programming on the network terrestrial broadcasters.
1.8 The key findings of the audit were:
- The broadcasters all reached or exceeded the quotas for current affairs programming
- The volume of current affairs programming on BBC One and ITV1 has increased since 1998
- The volume of current affairs programming played in peak on Channel 4 has increased significantly. 125 hours of current affairs programming were broadcast in peak in 2005 compared to 96 hours in 1998
- Between 1 July 2005 and 31 December 2005 41% of programming returned to Ofcom as ‘current affairs’ was transmitted in peak time
- 18% of the qualifying output was international programming
- There was a range of current affairs programming covering the following topics: politics, social affairs, economics/business and topical news programmes
- There was also a range of formats. Approximately one quarter of the output consisted of ‘filmed narrative’ programmes. Other formats were: studio programmes, talk, discussion/debate, interviews and investigative programmes
- Analysis of BARB data indicated that the total yearly hours of current affairs programmes viewed on average per person had increased from 13 hours in 2001 to 17.06 hours in 2005
Current Affairs – the Nations and Regions Content Analysis
1.9 This audit was conducted between 1 July 2005 and 1 December 2005 and focused on the non network output broadcast by ITV1, the BBC (including Gaelic output, some of which is funded by the Gaelic Media Service) and S4C. The audit examined the volume, range and scheduling of non network current affairs programmes.
1.10 The key findings of the nations and regions audit were:
- There was a higher volume of current affairs output in the Nations than the English Regions. The BBC was the largest provider of non network current affairs programming in the Nations whereas ITV was the largest provider in the English Regions
- 65% of non network current affairs was broadcast in peak or near peak in the English regions. In the Nations 46% of the output was broadcast in peak or near peak
- In the Nations politics and coverage of the Welsh Assembly/Scottish Parliament dominated the output
- The range of subject matter was particularly wide in the English regions, with the Nations much less likely to return features or 'fly on the wall' documentary style programmes as current affairs
- In England filmed current affairs was the most common format, accounting for 38% of non network output.
Current Affairs – Qualitative Viewer Research
1.11 The goal of this research was to inform Ofcom about viewers’ opinions of the current affairs programming supplied by the public service broadcasters. The research was designed by Ofcom colleagues in conjunction with an advisory panel comprising practitioners and other experts in the field of current affairs.
1.12 The fieldwork for the research took place in December 2005 and January 2006. Focus groups were conducted in six locations across the UK including each of the Nations and some of the English Regions.
1.13 The research aimed to establish how viewers defined current affairs, what their motivations were for watching, what types of programmes they preferred and how new media and technologies were impacting on television current affairs.
1.14 The key findings from the research were:
- Initially viewers tended to define current affairs very narrowly. However upon further consideration they widened the definition to include any programmes that are topical or relevant to them
- Viewers cited a range of reasons for watching current affairs. One primary motivation was having a personal interest in a subject. Another was the desire to appear knowledgeable
- The focus groups revealed that there was a general interest in political programmes but there was also a frustration with the emphasis on the process of politics
- Viewers expressed a desire for programmes which had a recognisable outcome
- Viewers looked for programmes that were engaging and entertaining citing undercover investigations as an example
• Although there was a desire for overall balance within a programme or the wider schedule, some respondents appreciated more opinionated and partial programmes
- New technologies appear to offer both threats and opportunities to current affairs. Although increased competition would enable viewers to avoid current affairs programmes more easily, new technologies (such as PVRs) would allow them to find and capture current affairs programming of particular interest within the schedule.
The Future of Current Affairs – The Symposium
1.15 Ofcom’s seminar on ‘The Future of Current Affairs’ took place on the 28th March 2006. The event was chaired by Roger Bolton (Chairman, Flame TV) and there was an invited audience of current affairs practitioners, stakeholders and academics. The broad agenda of the event was:
- Key note speech – Steve Hewlett
- Presentation of the Network Content Analysis – Stephanie Peat, Ofcom
- Presentation of the Nations and Regions Content Analysis – Katy Boulton, Ofcom
- Presentation of the Qualitative Viewer Research – Alison Preston, Ofcom
- Panel Discussion
1.16 Section 5 summarises the arguments made in the key note speech and the main discussion points raised by the panel and the invitees, with an overall summary of conclusions from the project at items 5.29 and 5.30.
Some conclusions and questions for the future
1.17 The current affairs audits and audience research have raised a number of issues and questions regarding current affairs provision to be considered by Ofcom and the Content Board moving forward:
- The audit revealed that there remains a wide range of current affairs programming. However, in the future it will be important to continue to assess the breadth of current affairs programming in peak, as some sub-genres (e.g. economic and political programming) tend to be broadcast during the day or later in the evening
- After consideration viewers tended to define current affairs programming quite widely citing examples such as Have I Got News for You and Jamie’s School Dinners as programmes that they felt had current affairs values. Ofcom’s new genre tracker allows for cross genre programming and therefore will enable such programming to have both a primary classification and a secondary classification. This will more accurately reflect the range of programming with current affairs elements or values
- Post Digital Switchover (DSO) will the current requirements for impartiality remain valid? The issue of impartiality will also be considered in Ofcom’s project on the Future of News
- How far can/will ITV's non network current affairs output be sustainable during and after DSO? In terms of plurality - would it be acceptable for the BBC to be the only significant provider of non network current affairs should ITV's contribution become unsustainable in future?
- Post DSO will there be more of an imperative for current affairs/political coverage in the devolved Nations than in the regions?
- Will there be other potential sources of plurality of current affairs and regional/national current affairs in the future? For example via on-line provision or Local TV?
- Is the range of current affairs in the English regions so wide that some output is not true current affairs? Or does this wide range reflect the fact that audiences consider a wide range of programmes to be current affairs?
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