Over the past year the state of public service broadcasting in Britain has been something of a hot topic. Following the publication of the government’s green paper on the future of the BBC there has been much debate around the relevance of public service broadcasting in an age of fragmented audiences and digital media abundance. However, although often the centre of such discussion, the BBC is of course not the only UK broadcaster with public service commitments. In September of last year Channel 4 hit the headlines over rumours that it could be facing privatisation to much public outcry. The past decade has also seen a significant reduction in ITV’s public service obligations, particularly in terms of specialist factual provision. These developments and the discourses that surround them signal the need for a broader examination into the place and sustainability of public service broadcasting within the contemporary media landscape.
It is these concerns and others that are currently the focus of an independent inquiry launched by Lord Puttnam entitled A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World. Based at Goldsmiths, University of London, the inquiry aims to ‘address how public service content can be most effectively nurtured taking into consideration a range of services, platforms and funding models’. The inquiry has also run a series of events across the country, including one at Cardiff University which featured on its panel Angharad Mair of BAFTA Wales, the chair of S4c, Huw Jones, Head of Nations and Regions at Channel 4, Ian MacKenzie, Head of Strategy and Digital at BBC Wales, Rhys Evans and Angela Graham of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.
The inquiry has also invited submissions addressing the key issues affecting contemporary television. A number of these key issues are identified by Lord Puttnam in a statement on their website which argues:
Public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our broadcast landscape in the UK but we are seeing a worrying fall in investment in key areas such as arts, news and drama as well as the tendency for younger audiences to migrate to new digital platforms.
Indeed, the increasingly competitive media landscape that public service broadcasting finds itself in has proven to be a chilly climate for specialist factual provision, and the arts in particular. Once seen as synonymous with public service values, the narrative of arts provision in Britain over recent years has been one of relative decline. This trend is also evidenced by the media regulator Ofcom, who found that despite hours of factual programming increasing by 20% between 2009 and 2014, spending on arts and classical music content across all UK public service broadcasters fell by 24%.
In our submission to the inquiry Dr Caitriona Noonan and I outline a number of recommendations. These include:
- Given the likely changes to both funding and content provision (e.g. the introduction of the BBC studio system) after charter review we would recommend that greater consideration of new and existing models of funding be considered for genres ‘at risk’ such as arts.
- While Ofcom and its associated research have signaled issues with the provision of arts content the regulator has yet to offer any viable strategies for the future. We would like more detailed monitoring of arts by the regulator and greater consultation about future provision.
- Whether the BBC Trust remains or is replaced by another system, we recommend that arts remain a visible part of their agenda and that there is sufficient accountability regarding the provision both in terms of the quantity and nature of the programming.
- While we lament the decline of arts on Channel 4 in peak-time we also acknowledge the creative risks it has taken and its partnership with both artists and arts organisations (e.g. the short-form series Random Acts). We believe that this activity is dependent on Channel 4 being publicly owned and we see this as yet another reason to keep the ownership of channel as it is for the time being.
- Further investment should be made into developing innovative content creation and distribution strategies for engaging young people with arts and encouraging them to see the arts as a viable career aspiration thereby strengthen the sectors.
- We believe there is a need for greater diversity in arts broadcasting in terms of subject matter and form, and in the diversity of those working in this genre behind and in front of the camera. We advocate an ongoing commitment within all PSBs to diversity through paid training opportunities extending access to this professional space beyond those from more privileged backgrounds.
- We believe there is a strong argument for maintaining BBC Four in terms of protecting specialist factual provision (not only in the arts) and as tangible support for the wider arts ecology in Britain.
- Our research highlights that many arts organisations, venues and artists outside of London feel excluded from the mechanisms of broadcasting and its coverage of the arts despite their critically acclaimed and successful work. We would like to see further investment in developing on-going relationships between national broadcasters and arts organisations to bring audiences coverage of events from across the UK.
- Our research indicates there is a dearth of specialist factual content that represents the arts and culture in Wales both on network and opt-out services. If one of the duties of PSB is to represent the UK, its nations, regions and communities, then it is crucial that there is a strong voice for Wales that reflects the contemporary cultural life of the nation. In order to address this significant weakness in the overall public service provision, we would advocate the need for a more coherent strategy for arts programming that both serves licence fee payers in Wales and promotes Welsh creativity and culture across the network.
In many ways the mixed fortunes of arts programming and those of public service broadcasting have run in parallel to one another over the years. It could be argued that any weakness in the arts proposition is only symptomatic of the wider challenges facing public service broadcasters as they fight for survival in a competitive, multi-channel environment. The future of public service broadcasting is also the future of arts broadcasting.