The concept of public service broadcasting, one of the cornerstones of British television, is to be redefined in a massive public consultation exercise.
The Independent Television Commission (ITC), the broadcasting regulator, will use "people's juries", public meetings and interviews with key industry figures to determine how public service broadcasting should work - and whether the public still wants it.
Thirty per cent of homes now have multi-channel facilities. Unlike the BBC and ITV, there is no onus on digital or cable channels to provide any public service programming.
Current affairs, children's programmes, religion and news are not necessarily commercially successful. The consultation exercise will gauge whether the public wants such programmes on the commercial channels or if they should be broadcast only on the BBC.
The ITC currently ensures commercial stations have a strong public service element by including conditions in their licences and enforcing them.
The results of the consultation, the largest the ITC has undertaken, will be considered by the Government when it drafts the Communications Bill.
The ITC chairman, Sir Robin Biggam, said: "It is clear that public service broadcasting provided by the free-to-air broadcasters will be a cornerstone of future regulation so it is important to define its role in the growing multi-channel environment.
"The ITC believes that the BBC, as the publicly funded public service provider, should be a major contributor to this crucial debate."
Public service broadcasting was a term coined by John Reith, a former director general of the BBC. He said in 1924: "Our responsibility is to carry into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement." According to the 1986 Peacock Committee on financing the BBC, it should "inform, entertain and educate".
The director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke, recently said with increasing numbers of channels, "the danger is that no one commercial channel, or even group of channels, can afford to make the indigenous programming the public wants".