Press Centre

Public Service Broadcasting in a digital age

Published: Wed 29 Nov 2017

Public Service Broadcasting in a digital age 
 
Speech delivered today (29 November) by ITV Chairman, Sir Peter Bazalgette to The Voice of the Listener and Viewer Autumn Conference
 
INTRO
 
Good morning everyone, and my thanks to VLV for inviting me to your conference. 
 
You’ll remember the American wit who observed: “Television is called a ‘medium’ because it is neither rare nor well done.” He cracked that joke a long time ago. If he thought TV was plentiful, in an age of a few broadcast channels with local affiliates, what might he think today…with satellite, with cable, and now with the digital distribution of the likes of Netflix and Amazon too? What was plentiful is now ubiquitous. The other part of his gag, that TV’S not well done, reflects that need superior types have to decry popular culture. Something you hear less today, in an era of apparently infinite choice and ever-higher production standards. 
 
What I want to do this morning is explore what the role of Public Service Broadcasting is in this brave, new world. I’m going to argue that, far from being outdated, PSB is more important today than it’s ever been…important to our democracy, to our culture and to our economy. These are broader purposes than that forbidding figure, Lord Reith, espoused with his “inform, educate, entertain” (in fact, he stole this from the American radio pioneer, David Sarnoff, sternly rearranging Sarnoff’s words from their original order: “entertaining, informing, educating”). And they’re broader than the specific obligations in ITV’s current Ofcom licence, covering national and regional news, current affairs, investment in original programmes and independent productions, along with our work in the Nations and Regions.
 
You’ll find these wider democratic, cultural and economic purposes reflected in the BBC’s new eleven-year Charter. And because that charter was debated exhaustively (and exhaustingly) up to its renewal in 2016, I want to talk a bit more about the role of the commercial channels within the PSB ecology. I’m going to argue we have something very valuable which we’d do well to cherish, to ensure it continues to deliver public benefit. And I want to scrutinise it in the context of an increasingly visible collision between an international market for TV – driven by technology and global economics – and the UK TV market – where PSB channels are still watched by more than 80% of the population every week. Despite that statistic, our TV market is digitally disrupted as it never has been before. We can’t dis-invent the internet age, nor would we want to. But we should ask how it challenges a healthy, civil society, and we should consider how TV with a public purpose is part of the answer. 
 
DEMOCRATIC
 
Totalitarian countries don’t have independent news services. Independent news is the lifeblood of democracy, without which citizens are disempowered to take informed decisions. But if it merely means choosing between the Daily Mail and the Guardian (important though they are), then we’re still under-served. What public service television news has brought to this is a gold-standard of impartial news. We have a compulsory tax, the BBC licence fee, which funds a news service whose accepted role includes scrutinising the government. Can there be any better evidence of a genuine democracy? 
 
And I believe public service news is much more needed today than it ever was in the days of Alvar Liddell or Reggie Bosanquet. The internet, extraordinary and beneficial as it may be, is also a latter day Tower of Babel – the home of rumour, gossip and paranoia. Last year Edgar Welch, a 28-year-old from North Carolina, walked into a Washington pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong and fired a gun. He’d read online that Hillary Clinton ran a paedophile ring from the premises. This was apparently proved by textual analysis of her emails, supplied by Russian hackers to Wikileaks. The frequent use of the word ‘pizza’ was obviously code for ‘girl’. Obviously. Then there’s the Bowling Green Massacre that never was, and so on, and so on. 
 
We’re facing nothing less than a crisis of trust in the public sphere. Peddling pervasive lies is cheap. Verifying and reporting facts is expensive. We knew the world wide web broadened our horizons, but we didn’t realise it would also narrow them. You know those people we try to avoid in pubs…the ones with a glassy-eyed look, the conviction that Elvis is still alive and the moon landings were definitely faked? Well, now they can find all their fellow believers online and confirm their mutual prejudices, in a one-to-one narrowcast. This is fuelled by Facebook’s algorithms and Google’s search. For all their many advantages, they only offer us what they think we’d like. All too often narrowcasting leads to narrow minds. Conversely, public service broadcast news broadens the mind. One of the fundamental requirements of a functioning democracy is that we hear points of view other than our own, and that they’re filtered by agencies we can trust. These are not ‘alternative facts’, in the deathless phrase of the Trump adviser, but genuine investigation, honest reporting, and impartial presentation. It’s instructive that Ofcom’s most recent research reveals that the public think the most important PSB purpose is “informing our understanding of the world”. More than three quarters of those who watched any of the PSB channels also regarded the news as “trustworthy”. That trust is the gold reserve of our democracy.
 
As the business model of newspapers is threatened, this makes the tenets and the sustenance of public service news vital. And I believe that the existence of BBC News and ITN, supplying ITV and Channel 4, has also paved the way for the excellent Sky News. It may not technically be PSB, but it’s as far from Fox News as it is from from Russia Today (that it might be closed, as a result of a public interest imbroglio, is spectacularly perverse). These services all subscribe to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code: “News…must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” And they compete in a beneficial way and reach more people with more independent perspectives than if, say, there was just the BBC. The principle of PSB competition is also important for television news in the regions and nations, where ITV provides a serious alternative to the BBC, which would otherwise have a monopoly.  
 
I was trained as a BBC news journalist. I’m not going to reveal how long ago that was, except that it was definitely in the last century. Television has had to modernise drastically since those days, when pipe-smoking blokes never reported anything unless it was spoon-fed to them and corroborated via three wire services. Now it has to modernise again. All the PSB services have their online iterations. But how effectively are they promulgating their valuable stories in the new, digital ‘Wild West’? A cursory look at other successful news sites reveals that perhaps a different tone of voice is required. Here’s a recent Vice News headline: ‘What’s dumb about today’s fake news’. Or Buzzfeed: ’27 Things You’ll Understand If You Went To A Crap British School”. We need PSB news to stay true to its philosophy but find a new audience…it should be the nutrition in the digital soup. And when was the last time you heard a news service explain or promote its principles? In future it’s going to be crucial that viewers, listeners and surfers understand the exacting standards of impartiality and sourcing that PSB adheres to. Contrast that with the frankly unsustainable position of the Facebooks and Googles, that they are not ‘publishers’. PSB providers are definitively publishers and will always take responsibility for what they distribute. And we should say so. 
 
CULTURAL
 
So that’s the democratic purpose of PSB. Now, what about culture? And what do I mean by that? Well, I’m referring to our way of life, our national conversation, our identity. In this sense, culture defines civic society, to which we subscribe or fail as a state. And that shared conversation is also what helps us debate and develop the sort of country we want to live in in the future. The key contribution PSB makes to our culture is original content – programmes made by us, for us and about us. Public service broadcasters currently invest about £2.6 billion a year in originations. As competition hots up and funding comes under pressure this has declined a little recently. But compare it to the primetime schedule of old, when imports Friends and Frasier dominated the Channel 4 schedule, Dallas and Dynasty held sway on BBC1 and The A Team kicked off Saturday evenings on ITV. 
 
Documentaries are an important part of the mix, but drama is the thing that moves us, captures our emotions and gains the biggest audiences…the telling of human stories that holds a mirror up to our lives. There’s more money than ever flowing into drama with the extraordinary intervention of Netflix and Amazon, beneficially adding to consumer choice. Many of their series are aimed at the international market and have more than a Yankee flavour. Very enjoyable they are too. But they don’t routinely explore sexual grooming, miscarriage, Muslim homosexuality, gay adoption, multiple sclerosis, recreational drugs….all recent, domestic story lines in Coronation Street. Or dementia, breast cancer, child abuse in the family, post-natal depression, acid attacks, heroin addiction…all included in Emmerdale in the past year. With such lists I make it sound as though our soaps are all about misery. But they do so much more. As Barbara Ellen wrote in the Guardian recently: “Our soaps can be much underrated, yet when done right, they celebrate a slice of British life and people that would otherwise be lost.” We know that ITV, as a national PSB company, also benefits from the perspective of the near half of our employees who work outside London and the south-east. 
 
At ITV we’re particularly proud to be the broadcaster this year of Broadchurch series 3 and the more recent Liar. Both programmes explored the incredibly important but highly sensitive subject of rape, and had around 10 million viewers. It may be a universal issue, but we gave it a British sensibility. I’ve mentioned Netflix and Amazon. We now hear that Google (through YouTube), Apple and Facebook are all beginning to commission long form content. Good for them. But as we increasingly enjoy stories of dead bodies on Scandinavian bridges or crystal meths manufacture in New Mexico, let’s also nurture the shows which are about us and the system which produces them. I’d argue, as I do with PSB news, that British originations are more important today, as we graze internationally, than they were in the past. If we ever became ‘citizens of nowhere’ we’d be lost.
 
Now, when I say, “shows which are about us”, we know we have to do better in this regard. We’ve been working hard to improve the diversity of our screen portrayals through the Social Partnership. Here we look to producers to make changes which will ensure their programmes reflect modern Britain. With other broadcasters, we’ve started a pan-UK system allowing us to monitor how we’re doing, both in front of and behind the camera. This also means ensuring our workforce reflects our society and draws on creativity from all communities. Just over 11% of ITV staff who identify their ethnicity are now BAME, a great improvement on the past but still some way to go to perfectly mirror the national picture. 
 
Both 2016 and 2017 have seen reductions in television advertising revenues, chiefly originating from the shock of the Brexit referendum. Despite this reverse, during those two years ITV has maintained its annual programme spend above a billion pounds. That is our commitment to PSB news and entertainment. And despite the uncertain outlook, we’re making the same commitment for 2018. 
 
ECONOMIC
 
Which brings me on to my third heading, after democratic and cultural: the economic benefits of PSB. The UK has created an enviable creative TV economy, perhaps the most vibrant in the world for the size of our population. We’re strong exporters of content, with a rising positive balance of trade. Extraordinarily we account for around half the international trade in entertainment formats. Why are we selling so much? Well, the English language is an obvious advantage. But also, for our number of people, we have more channels demanding more original ideas than anywhere else. Companies such as Sky make a very serious contribution to this ecology, but at its heart lie the public service broadcasters. Post-Brexit, exports matter more than ever before. But TV shows and formats are added value – they’re cultural exports which harness so-called ‘soft power’. We know that where British culture goes, wider commerce follows. 
 
In debates about PSB you don’t often hear the word taxation. ITV, a British company, pays over a hundred million pounds a year in corporation tax along with payroll and other, indirect taxes. And if you think I’m making odious comparisons with certain international players who pay little or no tax in many countries…you’re right, I am. There are issues of trust, also, in advertising. In TV an impact is watching the whole commercial, not a second and a half with the sound down and the picture half off the screen. The impacts are all real, not generated by bots in far off countries. And you won’t find your brand next to extreme porn or radical videos. Welcome, if that’s the word, to the world of internet advertising.
 
A couple of months ago I wrote a review of the Creative Industries, feeding growth and investment ideas into the government’s industrial strategy. I emphasised how important this sector is to our future, growing as it is around three times faster than the economy in general. At this rate it will create a million jobs by 2030. Meanwhile artificial intelligence will replace millions of jobs elsewhere, from surgeons to traffic wardens. This makes our sector more important than ever before…whatever else automation subsumes we’ll still need people to write soap operas, produce computer games, design fashion and create advertising. So entry level training for new talent and apprenticeship schemes are also welcome obligations to the society we operate in. As is our focus on the whole of the UK, not just London and the south-east, where almost half the creative industries currently are. We’ll continue to invest in our important production hubs in Salford and Leeds. My key review proposal was that the government do more to back Key Creative Clusters (and we received funding in the Budget last week to develop the concept). ITV and the BBC – in their case in Cardiff, Bristol, Glasgow and again Salford – can ensure PSB makes its own contribution to clusters. As will Channel 4 as it considers where to relocate some of its operations. 
 
THE FUTURE
 
The other day I had my first encounter with Alexa. This is not a modish confession. I’m talking about Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated search gismo. My hosts were playing some pop music which I tired of. So I said, “Alexa, play some Chopin.” She instantly replied, “I’m sorry, I can’t find a shopping channel.” It certainly is a brave new world, and one in which the platforms and the portals are the gatekeepers. If we want to cherish PSB then viewers need to be able to find its channels and its video-on-demand services. This is why DTT and Freeview are still very important to ensuring the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5 remain free, unmediated, universal services. So we need long term certainty for the DTT platform. It’s spectrum that others covet but which guarantees access to precious public service content. And we need PSB channels to receive fair value from distribution platforms for our popular programming which they profit from. I note that the government’s proposed Digital Charter is all about content owners being appropriately rewarded for the content they make available online. I couldn’t agree more. 
 
Prominence on the home pages of SKY and Virgin is equally important. Since around 50% of viewing on those two platforms is still of PSB channels, you’d think it was a no-brainer. But PSB prominence has been steadily eroded in the past decade and now needs to be reinforced.
 
Indeed, many people increasingly live in a hybrid TV world – still consuming a lot on DTT certainly, but also online too. On some estimates 60% of households already have their TV’s connected to broadband. How should we modernise the regime? We need a new set of principles around prominence that work for the new connected-TV, video-on-demand, box-set world. So I welcome the fact that Ofcom has started a review of prominence…it’s much needed. But don’t be too long about it and give us a fair crack of the whip. Just remember the terrible, ignorant mistake by the Competition Commission in 2009, banning Kangaroo – the proposed PSB VOD service. It didn’t take long for Netflix and Amazon to dominate a market we simply weren’t allowed to enter in a serious way. 
 
At ITV we may criticise the BBC sometimes and argue it should be held more tightly to its remit. We may compete hard with Channel 4 for talent and advertising. And we may negotiate hard with Virgin, Sky and BT about the value of our content. But in the future I think our old adversaries will also be our new friends, in order to sustain public service broadcasting in the 21st Century. We’re partnering with the BBC to offer the best of British content on SVOD abroad…the service – Britbox – is already up and running in the US.  
Along with Channel 4, Sky, Virgin and BT can also be our critical partners, with their subscriber data, in developing best-of-both-worlds television advertising: the benefits of both a mass audience and targeting. As we update Barb to measure viewing on mobiles and game consoles, we’ll need to co-operate around a common data currency for all online audiences, ensuring commercial TV continues to be an effective competitor in the global market.  
 
All these necessary alliances will be a very important part of making sure PSB remains accessible, well-funded and thus a deliverer of public good. But the market definitions we currently work under will have to be refreshed. We’ll be talking, at the very least, about share of video or even display advertising, not television advertising. And maybe in markets no longer confined just to the UK…. The PSB map needs to be redrawn. 
 
I hope I’ve persuaded you that public service is as important today as it ever was…more important perhaps. The trusted news which informs our democracy in an era of widespread fakery, the original programmes which help define our national culture and the demonstrable economic growth and international influence that flow from our creative excellence. At ITV we’re confident that mass advertising can remain a powerful funder of ITV’s schedule, even as we add more, bespoke online services.
 
However, PSB has to be nurtured with new ideas, fresh regulations and novel alliances. And lest, despite my arguments, you still think there’s something old-fashioned about PSB, I have one more killer fact. If you haven’t heard them, let me enlighten you that there’s now a band called Public Service Broadcasting. And their first album, which actually entered the charts, was called ‘Inform – Educate - Entertain’. You can’t get much cooler than that. Thank you. 
 
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