Ofcom Review of Public Service Broadcasting:
Response by National Union of Journalists

1: Introduction

1.1 This is the response of the National Union of Journalists to your letter, dated 5 December 2003, requesting our views for your review of public service television broadcasting. This response is part of your wide ranging and lengthy consultation and our views are provisional at this stage, as we will be engaging in the debate throughout the year and respond in full at a later stage. We hope that the Ofcom review will be transparent, contrasting with the approach often taken by the former ITC.

We welcome the view expressed that Ofcom should hold public hearings to discuss changes to the ITV licences and would encourage a strong level of transparency in the PSTB review.

We welcome the point in the letter soliciting views "on how public service broadcasting can be maintained and strengthened" but would like to make one initial comment on the scope of the review, based on the information in your letter, and suggest that this is too narrow.

Radio

Clearly public service broadcasting (PSB) also has some impact on radio, most importantly for the BBC, but also for commercial broadcasters in terms of news provision and other programming requirements. In terms of future policy-making we think this important sector of broadcasting should be included in any review. However if the Communications act specifies that the review should be restricted to television Ofcom should provide a mechanism to conduct a similar exercise for radio.

Satellite and Cable

Sky at the end of 2003 had 7m subscribers, and projections suggest that it will generate a significantly increased revenue flow and profits over the next couple of years. Cable too has the potential to develop from its present subscriber base of 2.2m.

The NUJ believes that these two sectors should also be included in any review of public service broadcasting, to identify to what extent they should be subject to PSB programming obligations in the future.

Ofcom should also examine the impact of PSB in the sector, including economic factors such as indigenous programme investment and the effect of this on the television market. To some extent this was considered during last year's ITC programme supply review. However the NUJ believes it was a serious omission to exclude Sky from last year's review. It would be wrong to exclude consideration of the impact of Sky, and possible future PSB obligations from this process. The fact that Sky is predicted to generate £1bn each year in profits by the end of the decade, currently has an average revenue per customer of £366, and spends a tiny proportion on original programming suggests they should be included.

When commercial television was set up there was, in crude terms, a bargain struck between the government and the ITV franchise holders: the government allocated the analogue frequency in return for PSB obligations. The NUJ believes the same sort of consideration should be given to obligations for platform operations.

Also in this context Ofcom should consider issues of access to platforms. Sky sets access rates for carriage on its platform which can be prohibitive. The regulator sets minimal taste and decency thresholds for satellite broadcasters, and minimal consideration of financial solvency when awarding satellite licences. A consequence of this is that NUJ members working for small television stations are left with too little protection.

The NUJ accepts that change is necessary within broadcasting and believes that this is a good opportunity to re-evaluate PSB obligations in the digital age.

1.2 The NUJ also thinks further consideration needs to be given during the review to the following:

  • the relationship between Ofcom and the BBC
  • how to stimulate indigenous programme production
  • how to ensure an even geographical spread across all of the UK for programme making which will maintain cultural diversity within and between the nations and regions
  • the role of analogue switch-off, including the need for guarantee that the 27 ITV terrestrial sub-opts are maintained within digital transmission

2: Public Service Broadcasting: Past and Present

2.1 Until the late 1980s UK broadcasting had a public service remit as its central goal and the interests of viewers and listeners was at the heart of policy considerations. This applied to the BBC, ITV, C4 and S4C. Psb was underpinned by a regulatory and financial environment designed above all to sustain high quality programming. There is an extensive literature on the distinctive characteristics of PSB from this earlier period, but clearly just to reiterate statements from that period when we are in a totally different era is not necessarily very relevant.[1] We do however think one issue remains constant and that is PSB has as its central concern the interests of viewers as citizens rather than consumers, and of PSB broadcasting as an important means of developing an informed public within a democratic society. A more recent survey, published by the ITC in 2000, is Public Service Broadcasting: What Viewers Want. Two of its key findings are relevant here:

  • There was broad agreement on the characteristics of PSB. Qualities that were repeatedly echoed included diversity, high quality, education, innovation, entertainment, information, original production, pluralism, accessibility, inclusion of minorities and free access.
  • The consensus across all respondents was that PSB requirements were prerequisites for good, quality television and that without them certain strands of programming would disappear altogether, and that quality itself would diminish. Few were confident that market forces alone could deliver high quality or innovative programming.

It is important to compare what types of PSB programmes were available in that earlier period, to identify changes, and suggest reasons why these have taken place. In adopting this approach the NUJ does not intend to comment exhaustively on the full range of programmes that "disseminate information, education or entertainment" identified in your letter but to focus on the specific areas of news, current affairs and documentary programming.

2.2 The NUJ has been critical of the direction of broadcasting policy since the 1990 Broadcasting Act introduced a greater degree of commercial competition into the broadcast media. As the outgoing head of ITC, Patricia Hodgson, pointed out, the result of this act was to put pressure on programming quality: "Programmes of less popular appeal are increasingly marginalised from peak-time schedules." [2] There is now a large and ever-growing body of evidence to suggest that the effect of this measure on the range and quality UK commercial programming, particularly ITV, has been largely negative and destructive. [3]

2.3 The NUJ also made clear in its responses to consultations on the Communications Bill its belief that the key policy proposals in it would continue to undermine the regulatory and financial foundations of public service broadcasting. The Communications Act in our view places public service broadcasting in a subordinate, even marginal, position within emerging media markets. Its main aim is to ensure that where commercial television channels fail to provide range, diversity and quality in programmes, that role is assigned mainly to the BBC and partly to C4. It is the marginalisation of public service obligations in key areas of commercial television which concerns us. We believe such obligations should be a central priority for broadcasters.

2.4 As a result of the 1990 and 1996 Broadcasting Acts and the 2003 Communications Act we have seen the disappearance of ITV regional franchises, culminating in the Carlton/Grananda merger. In the NUJ submission to the Competition Commission inquiry into the proposed merger we documented a parallel process: as regional ITV franchises were taken over and merged within larger groups, the level of commitment to regional programming declined. Also in successive bids to provide news for ITV, ITN saw its budget reduced each time it was renewed. The figures are dramatic, with staff cuts taking place against a background of a steady fall in the value of the news contract. In 1991 it was worth £80m, in 1992 £60m and by 1997 only £45m. In the last contract renewal in 2001 ITN was in competition with a rival consortium, Channel 3 News, with Sky News the main player in the group. Their low bid forced ITN to again reduce its own bid to ensure success. At the same time the signal was given by ITV that ITN News was a moveable feast, its transmission time subject to other commercial considerations, so that it lost audience share as its revered title, News at 10, became mocked as News at When?

2.5 We therefore believe that developments in media policy since 1990 make it urgent that any review of PSB needs to ensure the foundations are there to support it if it is to have a clear and certain future role. We move on now to consider what these are.

3: The BBC

3.1 The BBC is described as "the cornerstone of public service broadcasting". The licence fee is used to provide a range of programming in high-cost areas such as drama, in-depth documentaries, current affairs and news, both national and international. In addition the BBC has a regional and local presence through its TV and radio provision. These programmes, with the exception of news, are produced both by the BBC and independent producers. The key point though is that the BBC is, as a result of the licence fee, a broadcasting organisation which delivers its programming remit free from commercial, and relatively free, from political influence. The licence fee also allows the BBC to take risks in programme innovation and to develop programmes which cater for both minority interests and to reflect issues, ideas and debates which do not feature on commercial channels.

3.2 The NUJ believes the licence fee plays a crucial role in sustaining and funding the BBC's diverse range of programming, and has enabled it to respond to technological and other changes in the move to digital radio and TV channels and developing BBC Online. However the licence fee has been attacked by some who say it is an unfair means of funding, discriminating against homes which are heavy consumers of multi-channel television, or because it gives the BBC an unfair competitive advantage when it provides programmes or services in competition with commercial broadcasters.

3.3 The BBC has also been criticised for its lack of accountability, particularly in terms of the role played by its governors. We do think the BBC needs to have a clear, accountable form of regulation separate from Ofcom but the process of appointment of BBC governors should be made more open so that its composition more accurately represents our society and the roles and responsibilities of governors are more clearly defined. We also think that a more democratic structure should include guaranteed representation by industry trade union representatives.

3.4 The NUJ believes the licence fee should remain the means by which the BBC is funded in the future. We note that there are proposals to "top-slice" the licence fee and make a proportion available to commercial channels so that they can fulfil their public service obligations. We think this would have a very damaging effect on the BBC's programme making ability. A report commissioned by the BBC, UK Television Content in the Digital Age, demonstrates the size and importance of this in terms of the UK broadcasting industry, and some of the impacts this has on other broadcasters.

3.5 However we think that it would be inappropriate to see the BBC as the main means by which the PSB remit is realised. It would put additional pressures and distortions on the range and variety of programming which the BBC carries to maintain its audience share. If it was to become a kind of PSB island in a sea of commercial broadcasting this would inevitably threaten its future existence at the centre of the UK broadcasting system. For some commercial competitors this prospect might be attractive, but it would an undesirable outcome for social, cultural and political reasons.

4: Radio, TV, satellite, cable and digital platforms and PSB

4.1 The evidence is very strong that commercial TV markets left to their own devices or regulated with a "light touch" under-produce or ignore certain forms of programme output and move towards a schedule or programme mix of cheaper entertainment, reality programmes and soap operas. If we look at the ITV programme schedules since the early 1990s we have seen the elimination of distinctive current affairs programmes such as World in Action (Granada), This Week (Thames) and First Tuesday (Yorkshire), the virtual disappearance of documentary programmes associated with Central Television, and wildlife programmes associated with Anglia.

An analysis of the number of hours devoted to current affairs on ITV between 1987/88 and 1997/98 reveals that whereas in the first time period ITV, as a percentage of its output transmitted 6.3% of current affairs programmes, this dropped to only 2.6% in the later period. (4) There are also issues of concern about equivalence. Tonight With Trevor McDonald is driven by a different set of current affairs criteria to the programmes that it replaced. Its topics are chosen to appeal to audiences which, in terms of their demographics, will attract advertisers.

We have pointed out previously the way ITN was also weakened through reduced funding and uncertainty during this period. The NUJ believes that the US broadcasting experience is relevant here, where the evidence demonstrates that unless there is intervention to specify specific programming requirements market failure is inevitable in terms of the unwillingness of executives to let PSB considerations override commercial priorities.

4.2 The 1990 Broadcasting Act instituted a disastrous system of franchise auctions which produced major distortions with the ITV regional system. As the ITV regional franchises have been concentrated into the hands of fewer companies, there has also been a decline in the range and quality of progamming on ITV, but particularly in terms of regional programming and news provision. This process is continuing now with job cuts at Granada's Meridian and Carlton's Central affecting regional news and current affairs. In this context the review should revisit the ITC's charter for the Nations and the Regions which has proved to have a detrimental effect on regional broadcasting. The NUJ notes that there is a view in ITV that PSB programming requirements are seen as an extra burden on the companies and that in the future licence fee funding could be top-sliced to fund this area. We don't think this is a viable proposal but do think that franchise payments could be examined to see whether money could be diverted to PSB programme making. If this was to happen there would have to be regulatory oversight to ensure that such revenues were used for the purpose intended.

4.3 The place of the three free-to-air commercial channels ITV, C4 and C5, in terms of audiences and revenues, is inevitably threatened by the continued expansion of new digital satellite and cable services and thematic channels which at present have few, if any, PSB requirements (with the exception of Sky News which is required to provide an impartial news service). There is some evidence that C4 and C5 are seeking to maintain and defend their audience share by programming to attract audiences from ITV. Again this is a situation where programme diversity is threatened and PSB requirements seen as onerous. The NUJ believes that both C4 and Channel 5 should continue to have clear public service programming obligations.

4.4 However such requirements placed on free-to-air commercial channels would clearly favour the new digital platforms. The NUJ believes that public service obligations should be placed on digital platforms when they reach a certain size. Audience size, in particular markets (news) or geographical areas (UK, Wales, Scotland) should be the mechanism to do this. Incentives to develop PSB programming could be in the form of tax or regulatory benefits but, as with any scheme to support PSB requirements on terrestrial commercial television, regulatory oversight would be required to ensure compliance.

4.5 A similar scheme should operate with national, regional and local commercial radio. A set of public service goals could be negotiated with the regulator to be implemented over the contract period.

4.6 We would like to place on record here our concern with one idea on the provision of news in the UK which is being discussed. In the USA Fox News is not required to provide impartial news, and a number of studies have demonstrated the partiality of its reporting. The idea is being discussed that, because we have a number of news services required to be impartial, there is scope for a UK variant of Fox News. We believe it is vital that broadcast news provision in the UK, which has won respect as news you can trust, unlike the public's view of newspapers, should be impartial. Any review of PSB news requirements should not allow any new news services to operate under anything but strict impartiality requirements.

5: Concluding Remarks

5.1 The NUJ would welcome the opportunity to actively participate in any forums or seminars which are planned to discuss findings from the survey and any other research.

5.2 The NUJ is committed to protecting, promoting and where possible extending public service broadcasting values in the UK media, and internationally through our links with the International Federation of Journalists.


Notes

1
See for example the Broadcasting Research Unit's The Public service Idea in British Broadcasting: Some Principles, John Libby (1986)
2
P. Hodgson Priorities for Quality Television Westminster Media Forum, 2002
3
S. Barnett and E.Seymour A Shrinking Iceberg Travelling South Campaign for Quality Television (1999)
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