What do you understand by public service television? Is it to do with a reliable news and information service and current affairs analysis? Perhaps you believe it’s about high-quality drama, wholesome children’s programming or programmes that report on your community or region? It could be some or all of the above.
Public service broadcasting is like motherhood. Few people would dispute its basic value or importance to society. Defining it is a little trickier.
The big question is how should television channels – in particular those with the privilege of a licence fee or a terrestrial licence – balance their social responsibilities with their commercial imperatives and instincts? As the television landscape changes beyond recognition, so too does the answer to this question.
Take news, for example. Most people would sign up to the notion that comprehensive, unbiased, highquality news is a fundamental ingredient of public service broadcasting.
That notion was enshrined at the time when there was just the BBC and ITV.
The same principle survived the arrival of Channel 4 and Five and even with the explosion of digital television channels it seems to be taken as read that providing news should remain an obligation rather than a matter of commercial choice for terrestrial television.
But is that really sustainable in the multichannel era? According to the Independent Television Commission, the amount of news available to the British television viewer has increased by 800 per cent since 1995. In addition to traditional terrestrial news programmes, there are at least five dedicated news channels available to digital satellite subscribers – and that’s just the ones in English.
News has never been more available.
In fact, the world of television has changed beyond recognition and the rules surely need to change, too.
That’s why Ofcom has ordered the biggest ever review of public service broadcasting since television was invented. It’s not just about news and current affairs, but they will be at the heart of the review.
Over the next 12 months, 6,000 viewers and several dozen broadcasters and “opinion formers” will be consulted about public service broadcasting.
In essence, the question is this: what is the viewer entitled to expect from the public service channels in the early 21st century? It’s a kind of moral mission statement for terrestrial television. Once this is established, key decisions about regulation will follow.
In terms of what it means for television news, the review will have to tackle some of the content issues.
“Opinion formers” in particular are obsessed with so-called “dumbing down” and “tabloidisation”. Ofcom will certainly take a view on resourcing and performance quality, but it will also have to tackle much bigger issues based on choice and diversity.
It’s safe to assume that whatever Ofcom’s conclusions, news programmes will remain an important public service ingredient on all five terrestrial channels, but I would expect the rather draconian rules about scheduling, frequency and hours to be relaxed.
These are the same rules that ITV attempted to renegotiate when it first tried to move News at 10. Regulatory intransigence was met with bullheaded commercial defiance and the result was a set of dodgy compromises that did no favours to ITV, its viewers or the ITC, for that matter.
That can’t be allowed to happen again. Regulation and definitions of public service have to move with the times.
Five News: a hit at 5.30pm because it is the only terrestrial news at that time
Take our own regulatory dilemma on Five. We’d prefer to have just one evening news programme on weekday nights at 5.30pm, because this is where it reaches its biggest potential evening audience. (The number of viewers has increased by 60 per cent and its share of viewing has doubled since we moved it from 6pm two years ago.) Unfortunately, regulation requires us to play a 20-minute news programme at peak time (between 6pm and 10.30pm), so we run a second edition of Five News at 7pm – not because we think it’s a good idea, but because we think it’s the least bad option given the current regulations.
The success of the 5.30pm edition of Five News is due overwhelmingly to the fact that it is the only news available to an adult terrestrial audience at that time. It’s called complementary scheduling and in my view it should be regarded as a public service in its own right.
On the same basis, I also regard Five’s hourly updates in prime time as a public service, since we are the only terrestrial channel offering this service between 6pm and midnight.
Most consumers welcome the convenience of all-night shops, Sunday opening and village post offices. Having television news at a time or duration not currently catered for by other terrestrial channels seems a valid contribution to the quality of viewing life. I do hope Ofcom reaches the same conclusion.
Finally, Ofcom’s decision to consult the public is very welcome, but it should come with a health warning.
I have attended dozens of focus groups about news programmes and it’s a very salutary experience to meet your viewers face to face – usually in someone’s front room.
I remember one Solihull housewife telling me that our news was rubbish and she and her kids could draw better maps and build a better studio set. In my experience female respondents are more honest about their news viewing habits than men.
The blokes all claim to be avid Newsnight fans even though the figures suggest they’re far more likely to watch the bulk of their news on BBC One or ITV.
I found that male viewers wanted to be seen to be serious, especially in front of other men. Women are just as serious-minded but are more honest about clarity and accessibility. They freely admit when news leaves them confused or bored and are therefore more valuable as respondents. Even when they are being bloody rude about your graphics. Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in the new year Next week: Janice Turner
by Chris Shaw