Ofcom has recommended a “radical” overhaul of laws which it says is needed to ensure that public service media survives and thrives in the digital age.

According to Ofcom, between 2015 and 2020, broadcast viewing reduced by 24 minutes per person each day. 60% of all UK households subscribed to an on-demand service by September 2020. 47% of adults use online services as their main way of watching TV and films, rising to two-thirds among 18-24 year-olds. As global competition intensifies, viewers are no longer bound by television schedules and can select content from a range of online providers and platforms. Given these changes, the UK’s broadcasting industry is facing huge challenges.

Ofcom has made a series of recommendations to the UK government following its Small Screen: Big Debate review on the future of public service media (PSM).  The review’s responses coalesced around two fundamental issues – the importance of PSM for UK viewers, and the urgent need to update the system to ensure its future sustainability.

Ofcom says that public service programming remains highly valued by UK audiences, and the pandemic has reinforced its role in society.  Its research findings emphasise the special importance viewers place on high-quality, trusted and accurate news; as well as soaps, drama and live sports; and programming which reflects the diversity of the UK’s nations and regions. PSM is also central to the UK’s creative economy, with around £3bn spent each year on new commissions across a broad range of genres.

As a result, Ofcom says that to secure the future of PSM, broadcasters must accelerate their digital plans if they are to maintain a strong link with audiences, and the regulatory system also needs to be urgently updated.  Ofcom recommends that primary legislation is brought forward to:

  • Modernise the PSM objectives. New legislation should secure and strengthen PSM’s most important features: a broad range of programming that reflects all parts of the UK, and the ability to engage the widest possible audiences. There should also be a new objective to support the UK’s creative economy.
  • Update availability and prominence rules to include digital platforms. Broadcasters and connected TV platforms are struggling to reach commercial agreements, which make it harder for audiences to find PSM content on digital platforms than on traditional TV. Therefore, new rules are needed to require PSM providers to offer their on-demand services to popular TV platforms. In turn, platforms should be required to include and give appropriate prominence to PSM content. Ofcom should be given monitoring and enforcement powers, including the ability to resolve commercial disputes.
  • Update production rules for PSM content. If PSM providers are to reach all audiences, they need to be able to commission content which they can deliver flexibly - both online and on broadcast TV. Ofcom therefore recommends that commissioning rules designed to support independent productions should apply to all PSM content, regardless of whether it is commissioned for broadcast TV or online. This would include programmes exclusively shown on online services.
  • Update the rules for PSM providers. Broadcast licences need modernising to cover content produced across broadcast TV and online. PSM providers should also be afforded flexibility to innovate and respond to technological and market changes. Quotas should remain to secure important PSM programming, like news, and to safeguard the quality of traditional broadcast TV for those audiences who continue to rely on it. PSM providers should be required to set out clear plans to deliver against their objectives and report annually on their performance, with Ofcom holding them to account.

Ofcom emphasises that legislative change to the existing framework will not be enough to preserve the benefits of public service media and therefore it says that further radical approaches are required:

  • PSM providers must forge ambitious strategic partnerships. 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.
  • Other companies should be encouraged to produce PSM programming. The UK government should consider how to encourage new providers to help deliver public service media in future. That could mean harnessing the original news, drama and arts programming offered by existing commercial providers; or encouraging new providers of PSM or PSM-like content - for example on social media platforms - to target audiences who don’t connect with broadcasters on traditional TV platforms. Updated legislation should allow for complementary PSM providers to be added to the regulatory framework to maximise flexibility into the future.
  • The government should assess the case for financial support to add value for audiences in certain areas – such as regional programming. This could be done through a range of incentives such as contestable funding or tax relief.

Next steps

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has already announced it will consult this summer on plans around regulation of on-demand services and has also published a consultation on the ownership and remit of Channel 4. Ofcom says that its most important recommendation is the new primary legislation. It will support the government in developing detailed proposals so that this can be done as quickly as possible. In the meantime, it will continue to carry out its relicensing work, and look at the effectiveness of its other regulation, including advertising.