Visiting Professor Sylvia Harvey has made a submission to the Ofcom PSB consultation

Ofcom announced its formal public consultation on the future of Britain’s public service broadcasting (PSB) in December 2020, with a deadline for responses in the spring of 2021. But what is Ofcom?

Ofcom announced its formal public consultation on the future of Britain’s public service broadcasting (PSB) in December 2020, with a deadline for responses in the spring of 2021. But what is Ofcom, what is public service broadcasting and when will the outcome of its review be known?

The Office of Communications is the fourth and easily the most powerful of Britain’s four TV regulators, established in turn to oversee British broadcasting since the ending of the BBC monopoly in 1955. When the first regulator, the Independent Television Authority, opened its doors in 1954 there were to be just two TV channels: BBC and ITV. By 2020 there were several hundred licensed providers including terrestrial, satellite, cable and local TV stations. Since its launch in 1955 independent - that is, privately-owned television, with the strong and continuing brand name of ITV – became for some time Britain’s most popular channel. Over time the BBC caught up and then moved ahead in the TV ratings.

With the multiplication of channels, and the legal designation of ‘public service’ obligations (well-resourced news, variety of genres, investment in original programmes, production outside London etc.), five main PSBs services had emerged by the late 1990s, designated as such by the 2003 Communications Act. These were, and continue to be: BBC1 and 2, ITV1, Channel 4 and Channel 5. With the transition to digital and the far greater capacity of spectrum to carry more services these remained the top five channels by share of total audience; albeit with something like half the audience of that available to them in the late 20th century. Following the 1990 Broadcasting Act Sky satellite established a successful and profitable business with a range of sport and other channels, though – as might be expected of a specialised service – its share of audience remained relatively low. By 2019 the top seven UK channels, by share of total audience were as follows:

BBC1:                                        21.92%

ITV1:                                          17.82%

BBC2:                                           5.67%

Channel 4:                                  5.29%

Channel 5:                                  3.99%

UKTV Drama:                              1.3%

Sky Sports Main Event:              1.0%

(Broadcast, 20 March 2020, Channel Share/Audience Share (%) 2019, p.22; BARB, 2020 Viewing Report)

The ‘streamers’ or Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) providers have been enjoying increased use but have not so far agreed to join a common ratings system where the competing providers keep each other honest on viewing figures.

The point of this digression into ‘facts and figures’ is simply to establish that the British PSBs far from being wilting violets, disappearing into the shadows of history, remain popular and widely used. Extensive data is also available on news viewing; during the Covid pandemic in particular BBC news has regularly appeared in the ‘top ten’ of programmes with audience shares of around 5 million (Broadcast, 20 March 2020, p.20).

Ofcom is obliged by the 2003 Communications Act to conduct regular reviews of the state of the designated public service providers. However, Ofcom’s main Board is currently without an appointed Chair; an Acting Chair is in post. Thus, the relatively new Chief Executive, barely six months into the job, awaits the appointment of her more permanent boss. Under the UK’s unwritten constitution this post is regarded as sufficiently important for the appointment, following due process, to be approved by the Head of State, that is, by the Queen. In practice this means an appointment subject to approval by the Prime Minister. There has, of course, been much speculation in the press about this and the outcome will probably be known by the time this short report is published. In what is arguably and relatively a ‘power vacuum’ Ofcom had demonstrated its assiduousness and perhaps its anxiety by publishing at least 12 substantial documents on the PSB sector in the course of 2020.

Visiting Professor Sylvia Harvey of the School of Media and Communication, has made a submission to the Ofcom PSB consultation. Download this document as a PDF

A report from Ofcom to government, regarding the future of the PSB sector, is expected in the summer of 2021. Meanwhile copies of all available submission are now published on the Ofcom specialist website ‘Small Screen, Big Debate’ at: