Public Service Broadcasters must continue to ‘cover the waterfront’

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Something for everyone, most of the time

The IIC was founded on the principles of broadcasting as a public service, in an era where most television broadcasting was state-owned or controlled. Broadcasters were generally working with a large degree of editorial independence, within a tight framework. In most countries the role of Public Service Broadcasting (‘PSB’) has followed the principles first espoused by US broadcaster David Sarnoff (popularised, rather than originated, by Lord Reith) of ‘informing, educating, entertaining’, though not necessarily in that order. Of the three, it is the latter that has always been the most vexed. It has long been argued that PSBs have no need to replicate shows that can be provided just as easily by commercial broadcasters. Game shows, reality TV, quizzes: ‘why’, the argument goes, ‘don’t PSBs stick to the important stuff like news and documentaries?’ The BBC is recognised for some of the best drama around, and yet receives constant criticism for its output. (One critic recently accused it of creating ‘bland, glossy, easily exportable’ productions.) At the same time commercial broadcasters have sought to minimise their public service obligations (for example cutting much of their Children’s TV output).

It’s understandable that many would like to see the ground for ‘popular broadcasting’ left to the market, and some European countries, notably the Netherlands, are beginning to move in this direction. The advent of the streaming services has fragmented viewing, but mainly at the expense of commercial terrestrial stations1. Publicly supported stations have, in fact, held up well, and still command as much as 50% of viewing and high satisfaction ratings. They have also been successful at innovation – the BBC iPlayer was launched in 2007, the same year that Netflix began its streaming service. PSBs need popular support if their funding is to survive, and nothing would threaten this more than pushing them to the margins of minority viewing. In countries where public service broadcasting has a traditional role of providing authoritative news and information, organisations have to be seen to provide something for everyone, most of the time.

The explosion in content delivered by new companies and technologies is to be welcomed. Many observers argue that we are living in a golden age of film and television, with standards being driven ever higher. Public Service Broadcasters, like everyone else, need to be free to play a full and active role in every area of public and popular interest. The founders of the IIC would have demanded no less.

1Ofcom, ‘Public Service Broadcasting in the Digital Age’, March 2018

Something for everyone, most of the time

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