‘Weakened’ public broadcasters must reinvent themselves

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Public service broadcasters such as the BBC must reinvent themselves if they are to survive the digital future, a report from a Goldsmiths, University of London academic concludes.

A close up image of a TV button with the off button visible

In Losing Its Aura? Public Service Broadcasting in the UKProfessor Des Freedman sets out how UK public service broadcasters (PSBs) face increased competition from commercial rivals, ongoing pressure from hostile governments, distrustful audiences, and ongoing questions over a culture of elitism and outmoded standards of impartiality. 

Professor Freedman calls for PSBs to become ‘public service content creators and distributors’ which are financially sustainable, relevant to younger audiences, insulated from vested interests, and diverse in both staffing and output. 

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Moving decisions on the BBC’s Board and licence fee away from government and to an independent body
  • Ring fencing funding for content specifically aimed at black and minority ethnic audiences
  • Launching a new publicly-owned digital media organisation to generate pioneering digital public service content and collaborate with other content providers, including theatres, universities and museums
  • Developing tech solutions through this new corporation to enhance democratic participation, reduce misinformation, and harness data for the public good

Despite the increasing popularity of streaming services, broadcast TV has continued to reach around 90% of the UK population each week. PSBs, particularly the BBC, dominate the sector. BBC output accounts for 63% of all radio listening in the UK and 31% of broadcast TV consumption.

But Professor Freedman’s report explains how these seemingly healthy figures are obscuring ‘a more disturbing pattern of declining audiences, demographic shifts and political interventions that present a serious threat to the financial viability’ of PSBs, because they are dominating a shrinking market. 

With an overall reduction in consumption of 20% since 2010, these channels are dependent on older audiences, as 16 to 34-year olds spend far more time with streaming services. Despite its reputation as a ‘broadcast heavyweight’, the BBC accounts for only 1.5% of all time spent online. 

The BBC has had to make huge savings in recent years due to stagnating income from the licence fee. It has also found itself under attack by successive governments, which has escalated under Boris Johnson. 

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communica­tions at Goldsmiths. He led the inquiry into the Future of Public Service TV chaired by Lord Puttnam in 2016 and is a founder member of the Media Reform Coalition. 

The report on PSBs was published this month in English and German by the non-profit political foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. 

Professor Freedman said: “The UK’s PSBs have been weakened by political attacks and the rise of commercial rivals, and they’ve lost some of their reputation for independence and innovation. They have relied too long on their global reputation and dominant position in the domestic media landscape but these are advantages that are fast evaporating. 

“Yet the need for a media that can act as a counterweight to government pressure, the clickbait logic of wholly commercial enterprises, and the growing power of an unregulated tech sector is greater than ever.” 

Losing Its Aura? Public Service Broadcasting in the UK is available to download or read online