Where now for Public Service Broadcasting?

As a prelude to our next live debate ‘What is the Future of Public Service Broadcasting?‘ on October 24th, Professor Peter Lunt, Head of Department of Media and Communication, discusses ‘Where now for Public Service Broadcasting?’.

Periodically the death of public service broadcasting is announced – usually prematurely. The longer historical view can be read as a decline – from monopoly, through duopoly to diversification, to questions of the continuing relevance of public service broadcasting in the digital, new media age. But is this a decline? Particularly in the UK where a diversity of public service broadcasters continue to adapt and survive alongside the proliferation of digital channels and online content? Does it even make sense, in the contemporary global media system, to yearn for a golden age of television and radio, when the BBC was a monopoly broadcaster?

The BBC has proved adept (if sometimes slow) at change – most recently in its engagement with digital TV, BBC online and the iPlayer. Rather than being left behind by the digital revolution it seems to be in the forefront, even a leader in digital broadcasting and online content.

Yet there have been fundamental changes in the BBC – in its governance, in its public purposes and in the content that it delivers. Each of these changes poses important questions. Have the changes in the charter led to a more transparent, accountable organisation that encourages public engagement and deliberation? Has the shift from traditional public service values to public value testing and the management of public value helped or hindered the cause of public service broadcasting? In content, should public service broadcasters maintain a presence – even in the development of new genres, particularly in popular culture genres of reality TV – or does this compromise public value leading to a dumbing down of culture and society?

And the public service broadcasting system is no longer just about the BBC – Channels 4 and 5 have changed the meaning and approach of what is now a public service broadcasting system. And this is exacerbated by the increasing availability of knowledge and opinion online – so that the boundary of where content of public value is produced is no longer at the doors of the BBC. Should we now, in consequence, be talking of public service content rather than public service broadcasters? And can we imagine a future in which public service broadcasters disappear and a proliferation of providers of public service content replace them?

In the UK we have a diverse system in which different broadcasters play different roles – the BBC is still the cornerstone of the system, Channel 4 providing innovation and diversity, Channel 5 providing original content and children’s broadcasting. Is this the future of public service broadcasting – the development of channels with diverse roles and functions? Or will this go further leading to a further fragmentation and diversification of the public service system? And how sustainable is this mix of public service broadcasters? Can commercial public service providers realise sufficient value from their licenses to continue to make their contribution to the serving public life?

Academic views on public service broadcasting have changed also. There was a point when views from both the left and the right were critical of public service broadcasting – it was a subtle means of social control, diverting people from a real understanding of social conditions or a constraint on the development of the market for media and communications. Have these arguments gone away? Or are the effects of public service broadcasting on the development of the market for media and communication still a concern? And do we still think that public service broadcasting produces conformity in public life rather than stimulating debate and innovation?

The changes in the media system and public service broadcasting have created new problems. One example is what has happened to the provision of original UK generated content in children’s broadcasting as a result of the regulation of advertising of junk food to children. The result, perhaps ironically, is an increasing dependence on public service broadcasting to produce this important area of content. If you took away public service broadcasting, there would be little UK-generated content in children’s broadcasting. For many this example provides a warning (alongside the decline in regional news provided by commercial broadcaster) indicating that further changes in public service broadcasting should be approached with caution as they might have detrimental effects on British culture and society.

Such considerations, and the continuing complaints that the BBC is too big have led many academics to rush to the defence of public service broadcasting – where once they were the first to criticise – now claiming that it is a bulwark against the inexorable rise of commercial and global interests.

Intriguingly, despite these changes and the many questions that they raise, public service broadcasting remains incredibly popular with the British public. The latest triumphant coverage of the Olympics demonstrated not just that public service broadcasting can still deliver reporting of events on a grand scale, but can do so in a way that is innovative, stimulating and popular. It is still at the centre of public life and retains the confidence and support of a great diversity of viewers as well as sustaining culture, providing high quality news and information and supporting education.

Professor Peter Lunt will be on the panel at our next live Leicester Exchanges debate alongside Dawn Airey (Ex Chief Executive at Channel 5), the Guardian’s Peter Preston and David Wheeldon (Director of Policy and Public Affairs – BSkyB). What is the Future of Public Service Broadcasting? October 24th – 6pm, Savoy Place, London. Tickets are free – book yours now!

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