8 December 2020

Traditional UK broadcasting at risk without radical shakeup, Ofcom warns

  • New laws and rules needed for public service broadcasting to survive in online world
  • PSBs must create new partnerships to better compete
  • Public-service remit could be extended to additional content makers

Traditional UK broadcasting designed to serve the public is unlikely to survive in the online world, unless broadcasting laws and regulation are overhauled, and broadcasters accelerate their transformation for the digital age.

The finding comes from Small Screen: Big Debate – Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting (PSB). We are examining how to strengthen and maintain this valued cultural and economic institution for the next decade and beyond, in the face of unprecedented changes to technology, financing and viewer behaviour.

Ofcom has spoken to audiences of all ages and backgrounds right across the UK. We have also met more than 70 stakeholders, including broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts in the UK and abroad.

These are our main findings, published today.

A valued institution facing critical challenges

  • Public service content still matters hugely to people and society. People identify trusted, accurate news as the most important aspect of public service media. More than seven in 10 viewers place importance on regional news. Viewers of all ages and backgrounds value PSBs’ ability to bring society together, through coverage of events and programmes watched by millions. They value PSB content made about the UK, and take pride in seeing their own area on screen.[1]

    Audiences also value public-service content that the market is unlikely to provide. Beyond the PSBs, few broadcasters provide original UK children’s, formal education and religious programming, made specifically for the UK.

  • Public service broadcasters underpin the UK’s creative economy. They spend nearly £3 billion each year, ensuring the continued strength of the UK production sector, which is recognised and admired globally. The system supports a highly skilled workforce and helps develop new talent, allowing successful businesses to grow.

    The success of the UK media sector has also been fuelled by private sector innovation and investment. Companies such as Sky and Discovery operate outside the PSB system and commission and produce a wide range of high-quality UK content, including news, documentaries and arts; and invest in new technology that benefits viewers and the market.

  • But public service broadcasting is at a critical juncture. Audiences are increasingly turning away from the traditional PSB channels – the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 – in favour of global streaming and online services offering vast libraries and personalised content. Last year, only 38% of 16-34s’ viewing (and 67% among all adults) was to traditional broadcast content[2]. Two in five viewers of streaming services say they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.

    Public service broadcasting also faces a triple funding threat from falls in advertising revenue; the cost of needing to grow digital services while maintaining traditional ones; and the coronavirus pandemic, which has raised costs and quickened viewers’ shift to online platforms.

A vision for the future

To help preserve the vital benefits of public service broadcasting, Ofcom has drawn on a wealth of research and evidence to identify how PSB can stay relevant and reach everyone in future:

  • Laws and regulation must be overhauled. The rules and laws around public service broadcasting largely date from when the internet was still in its infancy – and they remain focused on traditional broadcasting. Without radical changes to support PSBs’ shift from traditional broadcasting to online, the challenges facing them may become acute.

    Ofcom is calling for a new framework to establish clear goals for public service broadcasters, with greater choice over how they achieve them, and quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news. Companies should be required to set out, measure and report on their plans, with Ofcom holding them to account.

    We are also inviting views on changes to rules that will ensure PSB content is carried on different online platforms. In the New Year we will launch a review of how the UK production industry operates.

  • Other companies could become public-service media providers. Alongside the content provided by existing PSBs, new providers could help deliver public-service media in future.

    This new content could focus on specific groups of people or types of programme. New providers could offer different skills, expertise and online experience – leading to wider benefits to audiences and the economy. They could be granted prominence and availability benefits that are currently only enjoyed by today’s PSBs, and also be incentivised by tax relief and contestable funding.

  • A new model for stable funding. Given funding pressures, public service media needs stable revenues to support creative risk-taking, innovation and efficient long-term planning. Public funding decisions are a matter for Government, so Ofcom has today set out a range of options, including international comparisons, outlining the benefits and drawbacks. These include full or part subscription models. There is also potential for cross-media funding – such as a local or regional media fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online and press publishers to strengthen local investigative news.

  • Partnerships could help PSBs better compete – as well as connect with audiences. 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. Shared research and development, performance data and back-office activities could also reduce costs, improve efficiencies and aid innovation.

    Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world. But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.

    “For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules, and build a stronger system of public-service media that can flourish in the digital age.

    “That could mean big changes, such as a wider range of firms tasked with providing high-quality shows made for, in and about the UK.”

Next steps

Ofcom is consulting on questions from today’s proposals until 16 March. We will also carry out further work on the scope and terms of rules that could govern the availability of public-service content. Separately, we will review the UK production sector, to assess if the current terms remain effective.

We will then make recommendations to Government later next year.


  1. The UK PSBs collectively represent by far the largest single source of UK original content. The main five PSB channels (BBC One, BBC Two, ITV/STV, Channel 4 and Channel 5) and the BBC’s other public service channels show around 32,000 hours of first-run original UK content per year. ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 showed a further 2,063 hours of first-run original UK content on their commercial portfolio channels in 2018. The main services also showed more than 2,700 hours of UK and international news in 2019, and a substantial amount of content specifically made for the UK’s nations and regions: 10,606 hours of new original programming in 2018. While global streaming services provide content that is popular with UK audiences, including younger people, only a small proportion of their library is UK content. In April 2020, none of the top 10 most-viewed programmes on Netflix was from the UK; and just one was from Europe.
  2. Includes live TV, recorded playback and catch-up viewing.

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