Our submission to an inquiry by the UK’s upper house of parliament as to whether there is a future for public service broadcasting in the age of VOD.

In a response to an inquiry by the House of Lords’ Communications Committee, the Public Media Alliance (PMA) submitted its view that despite the challenges posed by the rising popularity of video on demand (VOD) services, the values, principles and services offered by public service media have never been so important.

The inquiry asks whether public service broadcasting is becoming increasingly redundant as streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime become more popular,  offering their services at up to half the cost of the UK TV licence fee. The committee also ask whether public broadcasting is worth saving?

The committee asked respondents to consider five key questions:

 How can commercial public service broadcasters fund original UK productions at a time of declining advertising revenues?

 Are the obligations currently placed on public service broadcasters appropriate?

 Should there be further regulation of on-demand services?

  Does public service broadcasting do enough to reflect and serve the demographics of the UK?

  Have public service broadcasters responded adequately to market changes?

The full “call for evidence” can be found here.

Read the PMA submission in full below. Submitted on 26 April 2019.

More responses can be found via the House of Lords website.

The Public Media Alliance is the largest global association of public broadcast and media organisations. It is a UK registered ‘Not for Profit’ organisation with a UK based Secretariat.

PMA provides support and advocacy for public media globally and aggregates and curates information and research about public media issues worldwide. In this instance the PMA response will focus on the principles and values of public media and highlight the essential and unique role that public media plays in democratic society.

It is the unequivocal view of PMA, that the popularity of video on demand services does not make the concept of public service broadcasting redundant. In fact, the growth in demand for such entertainment services, makes the need for strong and well funded public media more urgent than ever. This urgency is further increased by the rapid and growing erosion of independent media internationally, exacerbated by both a growth in authoritarianism and populism worldwide. UK citizens are increasingly exposed to global media content that is neither independent nor impartial. A strong public media sector in the UK will help to counter such exposure.

The links between effective democracy and informed citizens are long established  [see EBU – Public Service Media Contribution to Democracy]. Public broadcasting has a specific set of values and characteristics that deliver more for society than entertainment alone. It is the key role of public media to provide impartial and independent news, high quality journalism, strong production values, universality of affordable access and relevant and original local and national content. All critical for informed citizenry. VOD services are not currently regulated to provide public value, nor is it their role to do so.

Public broadcasting originated in the UK with the BBC, and has specific remits to link a national media platform directly to the public via the licence fee. There are now circa 150 media organisations worldwide that although diverse, self-define as ‘public media’. At present, the BBC continues to take a lead role in the evolution of public media internationally and this underpins the UK’s continued prominence and success in the creative industries globally.  The governance structure of the BBC was established to ensure accountability and has been replicated around the world. Its editorial guidelines form the basis of independent editorial guidelines to be found in most newsrooms worldwide.

Internationally, public service broadcasting is evolving to become multiplatform public service media, more commonly known as ‘PSM’. The UK, specifically the BBC, has been fundamental to this global transformation. This evolution takes the core shared values of public broadcasting and enshrines them in multi-platform public media.

With public trust in the media at an unprecedented low, a national media system that adheres to a clear set of values and journalistic principles that can be monitored and regulated, is necessary to provide a trusted source of accurate and credible information to the public. It is well documented, that at times of crisis, emergency and disaster, citizens turn to public media for information that they can trust. In the worst case scenarios – fortunately rarely experienced in the UK in recent times – this information saves lives.

The current explosion of hate speech via global social media platforms is regrettably very much evident in the UK and again underpins the need for the continued evolution of a national multiplatform public media organisation that provides verified, accurate and credible information that can be trusted by all citizens. Any public media organisation in the digital age must also increasingly play a role in improving digital media literacy as a means of countering hate speech and improving citizen participation in national debates and deliberations.

Because of its licence fee funding, public media has inevitably always been seen as a competitor to commercial media. But to regard it in this way is to misunderstand the very essence of public media.

The BBC is well established as a national platform that provides an essential media space for citizens to ‘share the moment’, especially at times of triumph and tragedy. At its best it provides a cultural ‘glue’.

PSM is not an outdated concept, it is still underpinned by those values that build and maintain a credible and trusted mediascape. Nor is it solely about television services. It is not the duty of public media simply to entertain large audiences, although, of course its content output should be both engaging and entertaining.

As public media in the UK continues to evolve, it must ensure that it pays particular attention to remaining relevant and accessible to all UK audiences, including minorities across a diversity of platforms. With an ageing population demographic in the UK, then it is critical that UK public media do not seek to serve the young alone but also continue to provide content relevant to all generations. It is evident that as people age then their tastes in media evolve and change and this must be catered for under the principles of public media.

In terms of the BBC licence fee, PMA recently reviewed funding for public media worldwide. Through this research it became clear that in a digital, multiplatform era a licence fee linked solely to TV/programme content may not be the most appropriate. In the not too distant future it may well be more relevant for the UK/BBC to move to a household, business, or institution based fee such as the current German model. A direct funding link between the public and public media is, however, desirable to ensure accountability. Government subventions from general taxation do not enable long term planning and innovation and are frequently linked to fluctuations in the political and economical environment.

In global terms, public media in the UK is well funded. This, coupled with the international predominance of the English language, enables it to innovate and compete effectively in the international arena. It has taken a global lead in broadening its brand to non-linear platforms and should be supported as it continues to do this. While its first responsibility is to its local funding roots, the licence fee payers, it is essential that strong and stable funding for public media in the UK is maintained in order to support and grow the UK’s global lead in the creative industries.

High investment and strong marketing for individual ‘one off’ series created by VOD’s should not be confused with or comnpared to UK public media investment in high quality production across many channels and platforms, including the UK’s non BBC public media organisations.

Public media within the UK, should continue to increase collaboration and co-productions with other public media providers worldwide. Such collaborations will enable UK public media to continue to produce high quality content for international as well as national audiences, especially on subjects of global importance such as climate change. Such collaborations also increase the global viewpoint reflected in such productions and produce content that delivers UK audiences a more diverse world view.

It is the role of a national regulator to ensure prominence is retained for public media. Promoting and ensuring a diverse media ‘diet’ – available via public media platforms- is increasingly important when the digital universe enables citizens to increasingly cocoon themselves within their own personalised media ‘junk food’ bubbles. Of course, this is challenging. But above and beyond all else, the public media industry is a creative industry and it should be enabled to continue to innovate and evolve.

UK public media is recognised worldwide for its response to market changes and digital innovation. It is imperative that this reputation and achievement is also recognised and promoted here in the UK. UK public media, including the BBC, must continue to respond to change in the media landscape but its central role in society must be better understood and promoted.

This means that UK public media should continue to reflect on and review its own operations, offerings and standards, while every attempt should be made by politicians to better understand, promote and explain the role of multiplatform public media in democratic society to a wider UK public.


Header Image: BBC head office and square in front of main entrance with walking people. Credit: IR_Stone/iStock