July 01, 2007

Public Service Broadcasting

Contemporary British Broadcasting: Public Service Broadcasting

Please note still under construction

Please follow this link for article discussing whether the BBC license fee should be topsliced.

There is still some more legislation to include however the webliography is very useful. 


The question of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is an especially important one in the Media Issues and Debates Unit of the OCR A Level Media specification. The fact that the BBC has been under a cloud in July 2007 because of vaarious breaches of trust around issues such as falsifying phone-ins has lead to demands for high level resignations which accompany a sense of shock that an institution with such a high quality pedigree could have slipped so far to have allowed these infringements to happen.  I have given a frank opinion on this matter elsewhere on the blog. Here though it is important to establish what the roots of PSB are and why it might still matter today. 

The BBC Brief

The BBC for many decades has developed a formula which has gained consensus from the highest instution in the land namely Parliament. The purpose of the BBC historically has been to provide entertainment, information and education. There have been many criticism of the way this formula was applied particularly in the earlier decades of the BBC when the content seemed to be more in favour of education and information with entertainment coming behind in the hierarchy. The entertainment that was priviledged was often considered to be more on the 'elitist' side of culture. This stemmed from the notion that public service meant bringing in the best work which had been achieved by the greatest artists, writerws thinkers etc and ensuring that these ideas became known to a wider public. This has been described as a 'top-down' approach to culture. A more 'democratic' and 'bottom up' approach was promoted by many of the BBC's critics especially from the 1960s onwards when there was a flowering of popular culture and a loosening of the class system with a corresponding desire for a more meritocratic society.

Brief History of the British Broadcasting Scene /Key Legislation 

With the development of the broadcasting infrastucture ITV was introduced. The first ITV broadcast was in September 1955 in the London region. Famously the popular Radio soap Opera The Archers tried to keep audiences away from ITV by killing off a key character Grace Archer.  ITV still had a public service broadcasting remit. It was required to entertain, educate and infrom just like the BBC however the balance and style was different and appealed to wider audiences.  

BBC 2 was launched in April 1964. This allowed the main BBC channel now renamed BBC1 to provide a different mix of lighter entertainment with a more popular appeal. BBC2 could have more adventurous programming without being so beholden to the ratings issue as Wikipedia points out.  

BBC Two is the second major terrestrial television channel of the BBC. It was the second British television station to be launched by the BBC and Europe's first television channel to broadcast regularly in colour, from 1967, envisaged as a home for less mainstream and more ambitious programming.

The beginnings of the breakdown of the BBC / ITV duopoly came from Channel 4 which was started under the insistence of Mrs Thatcher in an attempt to develop more choice for consumers and to challenge the dominance of the BBC.  

Channel 4 is a public-service British television station, broadcast to all areas of the United Kingdom Republic of Ireland), which began transmissions in 1982. Though entirely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned: Originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the station is now owned and operated by the Channel Four Television Corporation, a public body established in 1990 for this purpose and which came into operation in 1993, following the abolition of the IBA.

The next big development in Broadcasting was made possible by the 1990 Braodcasting Act. Originally the initiative came from the Thatcher government however after she was removed from office the baton passed to John Major. A summary of the act is available from Screenonline an extract is given below:  

The Broadcasting Act 1990 required the British Broadcasting Corporation, all Channel 3 Licensees, the Channel 4 Television Corporation, S4C (the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority) and the future Channel 5 Licensee to procure but not less than 25% of total amount of time allocated by those services to broadcasting "qualifying programming" is allocated to the broadcasting of arrangement adversity of "independent productions". The expressions "qualifying programming" and "independent productions" defined in the Broadcasting (Independent Productions) Order 1991.

As can be seen from the above passage existing TV companies were required to source at least a quarter of their programming from outside companies. This was particularly to effect the BBC as prior to this it produced all its material in-house with exception of films.  Whilst this opened the door to commercial companies this didn't entirely revolutionise British Broadcasting. This came about under the 1996 Broadcasting Act which as Screenonline notes below:

The Broadcasting Act 1996  made provision for digital terrestrial television broadcasting and contains provisions relating to the award of multiplex licences. It also provided for the introduction of radio multiplex services and regulated digital terrestrial sound broadcasting.

The next big thing in terms of legislation was the 2003 Communications Act:

The Communications Act 2003 dissolves the Independent Television Commission, Broadcasting Standards Commission, Radio Authority, Office of Telecommunications (OFTEL) and the Radiocommunications Agency, and replaces these with a new body, the Office of Communications (OFCOM). OFCOM is charged with the regulation of the UK communications industries, with responsibilities across television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services, and with furthering the interests of citizens and consumers in relation to communications matters. The Act also liberalises UK media ownership rules and allows for the formation of a single ITV company, subject to existing competition in merger regulations.

Ofcom on Public Service Broadcasting and the News

News is regarded by viewers as the most important of all the PSB genres, and television remains by far the most used source of news for UK citizens. The role of news and information as part of the democratic process is long established, and its status is specifically underpinned in the Communications Act 2003. (Ofcom Report
Ofcom discussion of the changes within TV in the digital era

What do all of these digital developments mean for the relative health of the
main terrestrial TV channels, and indeed for public service broadcasting itself?
Overall, there appear to be two main conclusions: first, public service broadcasting
has to be considered in the context of a complex, fragmented multichannel digital
world, not a simple five channel analogue one. In this digital world, BSkyB
has established a powerful competitive position. The growth in the number of
channels and the competition between the different digital platforms has brought
substantial new revenues into the television sector: for instance, BSkyB's
subscription revenues now exceed the total amount raised by the BBC licence
The established main terrestrial channels have had to learn to share the
broadcasting space with an aggressive, successful new entrant.
(My emphasis: Ofcom Report )

Webliography for Public Service Broadcasting 

BBC Question & answer (Q & A) on PSB 

National Union of Journalists (NUJ) on Public Service Broadcasting (PSB)

Ofcom ( Office of Communications) Review of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB)

2002 Speech by Caroline Thompson the Director of Public Policy for the BBC on the future of PSB 

A useful academically based page summarising the position of some leading British academics such as Graham Murdock:  http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/peacock.html

The NUJ response to the Ofcom review of PWSB 

Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS): Broadcasting 

Speech by Tessa Jowell Jan 2007 on the renewal of the BBC Licence fee until 2012 / 13 

Guardian Report on Second Ofcom review of Public Service Broadcasting  

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