Report from a Doc Fest event: Our BBC, Our Channel 4: A Future for Public Service Broadcasting.

Sheffield Doc Fest (Sheffield International Documentary Festival) included a conference on the future of public service broadcasting (PSB) in the UK.  The panel was made up of

 

Jane Martinson, Media Editor at the Guardian, who chaired the event

 

Hugh Harris, Director of Media, International, Gambling & Creative Economy at the DCMS,


Ralph Lee, Head of Factual and Deputy Chief Creative Officer, Channel 4,


Lord David Puttnam, Chair of the enquiry into the future of television,


Alison Kirkham, Controller of Factual Commissioning, BBC


Background
As the BBC Charter Renewal moves into its final stages, with a White Paper due in the early summer and the possible privatisation of Channel 4 currently on the government’s agenda, the future of these public institutions is in doubt.  
The Daily Telegraph's headline announced John Whittingdale's appointment as Secretary of State (SoS) at the DCMS, in May 2015, as the Government 'declaring war' on the BBC.  Channel 4's future as a PSB is being discussed by the Government with a view to privatisation.


Hugh Harris (DCMS)
At the moment there is no policy announcement on Channel 4.  


DCMS has received 190,000 responses to its Green Paper on the future of the BBC.  The Department has also received comments from the BBC and Parliament.  The SoS has set up an advisory panel.  The questions about the BBC are almost the same as during its Charter renewal in 2006.  


The BBC's market share in TV is 30% and 53% in radio.  It has about 300 million viewers/listeners a year and has one of the largest distribution networks in the world.  As a media provider it is substantially larger than any one else in the UK.  It is regarded as a 'force for good' and is felt to be an outstanding provider of programmes on all subjects.  For example, 80% of the public felt the BBC did well.  Its average satisfaction rating  was 6.4 out of 10 - a high level of customer satisfaction.  The BBC was felt to have a positive role in active citizenship.


However, there have been problems: the mess over its Digital Media Initiative that wasted almost £100m.  There are also questions over its ability to reach the UK's ethnic minorities.

 

 

There is no obvious alternative to the Licence Fee, although there are issues with the arrangement.  There is no threat to the corporation's independence.  The freeze on the Licence Fee will end and this is likely to offset the Over 75 licence exemption.  Therefore, the overall budget will be about the same as at the moment.

 
The government feels the BBC needs to be more 'distinctive'.  There will be an initiative to digitise programmes stored in the BBC archive.  The corporation will have greater freedom to commission programmes externally.   


Ralph Lee (C4)
Firstly, he regarded the BBC as the premier broadcaster in the world.  C4 was also a PSB and this remit was likely to be a big problem for anyone thinking of buying it.  In general, ITV did not take the same programming risks as C4.  The SoS has suggested that many organisations want to buy C4.  If it was bought a new owner would want  more value and the most likely way to get this  was to cut the programming budget.  


David Puttnam
This was the 9th enquiry into the BBC linked to charter renewal.  He emphasised the links between broadcasting and democracy.  He did not think the BBC should be confined to 'areas of market failure' to become more distinctive.  He quoted the turnover of Sky TV - £9bn, creating a profit of £1.7bn.  When he became Deputy Chair of C4 the company had reserves of £250m.  These figures suggested these commercial broadcasters were not impoverished or needing preferential support.  He called for ITV to strengthen its public service remit, in order to “recapture the scale and ambition of the best of ITV’s historic reputation for flagship current affairs programming.”

 

Lord Puttnam's review will be published on 29 June.  It will say that Ofcom should conduct a “major review” of how best ITV can contribute to the PSB ecology and suggest changes that should result in an increase in current affairs output.  The inquiry will recommend ITV broadcasts 90 minutes of current affairs a week.  This would equate to 78 hours a year, which is an 81% increase on its current 43-hour minimum obligation.


ITV often exceeds the commitments set out in the Channel 3 licence and last year it aired 63 hours of current affairs programming.  This means it would need to increase its output in the genre by a quarter to meet the review’s target.  The report will also say that ITV should increase the minimum amount of regional current affairs it broadcast every week from 15 to 30 minutes.


In return for the current affairs commitments, the review will say that ITV should be guaranteed continued prominence on electronic programme guides and on demand services.  It will also conclude that ITV should be paid retransmission fees by pay-TV operators, such as Sky.


He believed there is a great opportunity to reinvent current affairs television content for the 21st century, while building on the very best of ITV’s traditions.  This would have the additional benefit of raising the game of other broadcasters, not least the BBC, by restoring the competition for quality that was a hallmark of the public service television world in the recent past.

 

He stated that if the UK votes to leave the EU (next week) it will partially be because the newspapers have mislead the public.  The media has presented political issues in black and white ways and have appealed to the public's fears and ignorance.  The decision is about unknowns and will be grave decision.  There have been documentaries about this subject not least on C4.  
At the end of the conference I spoke to David Puttnam.  I  asked him if he agreed that the BBC and ITV were the largest funding bodies in the UK for arts and culture.  For example, the BBC is the largest employer of musicians.  Did he feel the BBC had an obligation to finance arts and culture as part of its PSB?  He said "of course" and he believes the future of the BBC orchestras has been secured in the new charter.  He fully recognised that the BBC and the broadcasters in general were bigger financiers of the arts than the Arts Council.

 

Robert Scott, Sheffield Visual Arts Group

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