Broadcasting’s new age makes industry regulations look dated

Broadcasting has changed beyond recognition in recent years; unfortunately the way it is regulated has not yet moved with it. By Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent.

This weekend, the great ones of British television gather in Cambridge for the biennial convention of the Royal Television Society.

Although the venue is nominally King’s College, and the conference sessions are held in the concert hall of the University Music School, you shouldn’t get carried away with the notion either that the participants will be rediscovering their student past by being put up in the spartan accommodation of a room at King’s, or that the level of intellectual debate will be up to the standards of an academic symposium.

Most of the bigwigs, and plenty of the lesser fry, will be comfortable ensconced in one of the city’s modest handful of decent hotels. The debate, though well-informed and frequently thought-provoking, won’t rise much (if at all) above the level you’d expect at any good industry conference.

But the fact that the convention has been held in Cambridge from time immemorial, and that the broadcasters’ club which organises it is entitled to put “Royal” in front of its name, are just two reminders that broadcasters once thought of themselves as a cut above the average.

They were public servants, charged with a sacred duty to inform and educate as well as entertain, conscious (if they were commercial) that they had at least to pretend that doing good was as important to them as making money.

Those days have gone. Eight years ago I wrote a piece for this magazine remarking on the fact that not one representative of the new cable and satellite channels had been invited to the convention, and only one represent ative of the advertisers (and he was viewed rather like a visitor from a different world).

This year the speakers include the managing director of British Interactive Broadcasting (the company which will market Sky’s digital receivers), the general manager of Sky itself, the director of Internet Multimedia Services at BT and the director-general of Oftel.

That is as it should be, because in eight years the broadcasting business has changed out of all recognition thanks to technological innovation, the arrival of competition, the presence of “true” commercial operators and an end to the notion that broadcasting could only be done by a few university-educated pointy-heads who knew what was good for us and were granted privileged access to one of just four channels.

But some things haven’t kept pace with the rate of change in the business itself – and one of those things, arguably, is the way it’s regulated. The Independent Television Commission may not be the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which owned the transmitters, took responsibility for everything that was broadcast and insisted on prior approval of everything in the schedule. But it still lays down detailed rules which its terrestrial licensees must follow, and has an effective power of veto over such matters as the scheduling of news programmes on ITV.

Then there’s the Broadcasting Stand ards Commission, a monument to Margaret Thatcher’s failure of nerve when she was faced with the consequences in the field of broadcasting of her belief in markets and individual responsibility.

There’s Oftel – which so memorably intervened to disagree with its fellow-regulator’s decision after the ITC awarded the digital terrestrial television licence to a company involving BSkyB – there’s the Office of Fair Trading, there’s the BBC’s Governors.

And there’s the peculiar financial regime imposed on British broadcasters, under which the BBC receives 1.3bn a year of the public’s money and the right to operate, free of charge, on two of our limited number of terrestrial television channels, while ITV has to pay more than 500m a year for a similar privilege.

The Peacock Committee on the future of the BBC, set up by Mrs Thatcher in the Eighties, famously looked forward to a day when the number of television channels had grown to a point where regulation was no longer necessary – just as it’s deemed largely unnecessary in the magazine market.

Finally, more than a decade on, that day is nearly with us. What justification can there be in a digital era for continuing with a system of broadcasting regulation developed in an era of spectrum scarcity, at a time when broadcasters could expect large subventions from the public purse?

Is there still a justification for running separate regulatory regimes for those channels which reach everybody (or nearly everybody) and those which reach only a proportion of the population through satellite and cable?

If there is, how high does penetration of the cable and satellite channels have to rise before the justification ceases to exist? How many regulators do we need? And what should be the principles that guide them?

These may be the last questions the beneficiaries of the present system – many of whom will be at Cambridge – want to hear, but they’re the last ones they will hear (at the last session of the convention).

The fact that they’re being discussed is a further reminder that the old television industry is a thing of the past – even if it does still hold its industry conferences in the ancient surroundings of the country’s second-oldest university.

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