Public spirit of the beeb is to come under scrutiny

While the industry acquaints itself with a new ITV, public service commitments will dominate debate over the future of TV – and the BBC Charter, says Torin Douglas

ITV director of programmes Nigel Pickard lost no time last week in setting out his post-merger stall. Within hours of the Carlton-Granada deal being approved with fewer- than-expected strings, he was calling for ITV’s public service programme obligations to be lightened as well. “Chief seeks to ease ITV’s religious burden”, said The Guardian’s headline.

Giving the annual BAFTA lecture, Pickard said ITV’s requirement to provide 104 hours a year of religious programmes “stuck out like a sore thumb” in the new, more commercial world and “may just turn out to be too much”. Its other public service obligations should also be reassessed: “We’re fast approaching the point where special cases and special interests can no longer be accommodated on a mainstream channel that has to work harder than ever to earn its keep.”

By contrast, last week English National Opera announced a &£3m injection of sponsorship from Sky and its channel Artsworld. That prompted the Independent headline: “Sky’s &£3m sponsorship deal eases crisis at ENO”. Can it be coincidence that Sky is upping its “public service” commitments just as ITV is reducing them? (Sky already claims, with some justification, that Sky News is a public service channel.)

In fact, of course, ITV’s budget for public service programming dwarfs any contribution from Sky (the &£3m ENO deal is spread over three years). ITV puts more than &£300m a year into home-grown drama and also pays &£300m a year to the Government for its spectrum, while Sky pays nothing (a fact that Granada chairman Charles Allen raised again at the weekend).

Even so, Sky’s move into arts programming is highly significant at this time. The timing of Pickard’s speech was also deliberate. For the battle over public service broadcasting will dominate much of the debate around television over the coming year. While advertisers and TV sales departments trade blows over the post-merger blueprint for airtime trading, TV bosses, regulators, politicians, lobbyists and consumer groups are going to be arguing over programming – and how quality can be protected in the more commercial world sanctioned by the Communications Act 2003.

The Government has asked Ofcom to review public service broadcasting. To some, that might seem a strange and somewhat academic priority for the new regulator. Why now? What’s the hurry?

The reason is that the concept of public service broadcasting – and the differing programme obligations laid on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and BSkyB – will be crucial in determining how TV develops in the next few years. It’s vital to the debate over the BBC’s Charter and the terms under which a US predator, such as Viacom or Haim Saban, could take over ITV.

The concept of public service broadcasting underpinned the development of broadcasting in the UK – because the British establishment wanted to avoid the excesses of US commercial radio and TV. Commerce, red in tooth and claw, drove US broadcasting. Programmes that didn’t grab enough viewers to attract enough advertisers weren’t made. In many people’s eyes, that means the tackier the show the better.

In the UK, there were higher ambitions (underpinned by a prejudice against commerce and advertising). Lord Reith set up the BBC as a publicly funded, public service broadcaster with the obligation to “inform, educate and entertain” – in that order. When commercial TV was finally permitted in 1955, after a fierce battle in Parliament, it too was required to meet these higher needs.

In return for their local monopoly of TV advertising, ITV contractors were given heavy obligations to provide a varied, high-quality programme schedule, including many genres that would not be justified in purely commercial terms. Not only had there to be high-quality news, documentaries, current affairs, religion, arts, children’s and regional programmes, but many of them had to be shown at peak-time, when the bulk of the audience was able to watch.

Over the years, as ITV’s competition has intensified, those requirements have been relaxed. Pickard wants them relaxed further, but he made clear ITV wasn’t seeking to scrap them altogether: “We won’t be dropping arts, religion and the rest off a cliff at the end of this year” he said. “They’ll all stay part of ITV’s mixed offer for some time to come, but it is inevitable that there will be an increasing focus on those genres that sit more comfortably on a mass channel.”

Meanwhile, he said, other organisations should take a great share of the burden of public service broadcasting to ensure viewers weren’t short-changed: “The idea is that the broadcasters least dependent on the vagaries of the market and the whims of shareholders – BBC and Channel 4 – should do the most to plug the gaps where the market can’t, or won’t provide.”

Indeed, it is the BBC that is likely come under most pressure from the Ofcom review, which forms a key part of the debate over the renewal of its charter. Commercial broadcasters already claim the Beeb is too competitive, too popular and too well-funded and have questioned why it spends so much money on US series and films such as Harry Potter.

It hasn’t escaped their notice that last week the BBC trumpeted a multi-million pound deal with Disney for a package of films, including Chicago, Calendar Girls and Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ll shortly be asking Ofcom: “How is that a public service?”

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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