Western Mail

How relevant for modern times is public service broadcasti­ng?

The television licence fee debate risks overlookin­g the value of the UK’s public broadcaste­rs, argue Cardiff University media experts Tom Chivers and Stuart Allan


THE proposed two-year freeze in the TV licence fee has prompted a lively debate about BBC funding. The move puts huge pressure on the Corporatio­n’s finances, which have taken an estimated 30% real-terms cut since 2010. The National Audit Office suggested in its December 2021 report that further budget reductions may lead to more repeats and fewer original high-end programmes.

Conflictin­g claims about the “end of the licence fee” have also focused concerns on the future viability of the BBC. Many praise its range of services, currently provided for what amounts to 43p a day. But others dispute the need for public funding, given the abundance and popularity of commercial streaming services and online media.

Added to this is the issue of the licence fee model itself. The debate, announced by the UK Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, in parliament this week, now centres on whether this is an essential tool for funding a universal public good or a regressive and anachronis­tic tax.

These discussion­s highlight the significan­ce of the BBC in the UK’s unique model of public service broadcasti­ng, which includes Channel 4, ITV, Channel 5 and the Welshlangu­age broadcaste­r S4C. This is defined by Ofcom as catering to “people’s needs as citizens and their interests as individual­s”.

Yet in a modern media landscape experienci­ng a widening generation gap in news audiences, a declining TV advertisin­g market, rising production costs and rampant global competitio­n from Netflix and Amazon, deeper questions are emerging about the purpose and value of public service broadcasti­ng.

Are the traditiona­l ideals of public service broadcasti­ng still relevant in the “multi-screen” era? How should its value be assessed to ensure maximum possible benefit to the public?

This is central to our recently published research by Cardiff University and the AHRC-funded Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre. Through analysing regulatory documents and related industry studies from the last two decades, we have developed a typology of six different types of value: social, cultural, economic, industrial, representa­tional and civic. They reflect the various principles and obligation­s of public service broadcasti­ng, as well as emerging risks and opportunit­ies, that shape the UK’s current model.

The social value of public service broadcasti­ng stems from free-to-air broadcaste­rs providing equitable access to universal content that helps build a shared national conversati­on. But the rapid growth of audience choice challenges the relevance of public service broadcaste­rs offering “something for everyone”. And regulation­s designed for a handful of fixed-schedule TV channels need updating to ensure public service broadcasti­ng content is still widely accessible across new platforms and devices.

The cultural value of high-quality, original UK content in news, arts and

music, education, religious and children’s programmin­g – featuring the lives and experience­s of British audiences – distinguis­hes these broadcaste­rs from the wider marketplac­e.

In 2020 they produced 29,800 hours of “UK-originated” content, compared to just 571 hours of streaming on-demand services such as Netflix. Arts, education and children’s programmin­g provided by the broadcaste­rs throughout the pandemic further highlights the cultural value of investment in genres not usually provided by the market. Further funding cuts will jeopardise this and make it increasing­ly difficult to provide high-quality specialist programmin­g.

As the response to the latest licence fee announceme­nt has demonstrat­ed, discussion­s on the economic value of public service broadcasti­ng typically focus on consumer “value for money”. Recent YouGov polling suggests increasing ambivalenc­e about continuing to support public investment in broadcasti­ng.

Yet in recent years public service broadcaste­rs have increasing­ly sought to emphasise the positive economic value created by employment and investment in the creative industries. A KPMG study for the

BBC, for example, estimates that every £1 of BBC spending generated a further £1.63 of economic activity.

There is also considerab­le “industrial value” generated by public service broadcaste­rs through investment in infrastruc­ture, skills and technologi­cal innovation that help to grow the media sector. Commission­ing quotas and favourable “terms of trade” for independen­t production companies have been a big part of the global success of the UK’s media sector, while public service broadcasti­ng’s regional activities have helped establish new regional centres of investment in the creative industries around the UK.

The representa­tional value of public service broadcasti­ng comes from ensuring that all voices, identities and lifestyles that make up life in modern Britain are reflected. This is epitomised in Channel 4’s mission to reflect “the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society” – similar to services such as S4C, BBC’s Asian Network and ITV’s regional news networks.

But only half of UK audiences feel that public service broadcaste­rs accurately portray their own nation or region. And, despite important new initiative­s in recent years, the broadcaste­rs have yet to tackle longstandi­ng inequaliti­es across ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientatio­n in the screen industries.

Finally, public service broadcasti­ng creates civic value by empowering audiences to actively participat­e as citizens in the wider democratic process. Research from Ofcom and the Reuters Institute confirms the status of free-to-air public service broadcaste­rs as the most used and most trusted sources of news for audiences. Still, chronic issues of mistrust, perception­s of bias and younger audiences’ shifting media habits raise systemic challenges for the future support and loyalty for public service broadcasti­ng news outlets.

Taken together, these six values recognise the public’s distinct interests and needs as viewers and listeners, citizens, “investors” and consumers. In taking a wider perspectiv­e on crucial policy issues such as the BBC licence fee, Channel 4’s potential privatisat­ion and future regulation of streaming platforms, we invite policy-makers, industry stakeholde­rs, audience groups and others to test the usefulness of our typology for examining the future of public service broadcasti­ng.

This article, which first appeared on www.theconvers­ation.com, is based on research published by the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre and carried out by Cardiff University. The research is entitled ‘What is the Public Value of Public Service Broadcasti­ng?’

Dr Chivers is a research associate at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture, while Professor Allan is professor of Journalism and Communicat­ion at the university.

 ?? Cardiff University and the Policy and Evidence Centre ?? The six core values of public service broadcasti­ng
Cardiff University and the Policy and Evidence Centre The six core values of public service broadcasti­ng

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