Sometimes it is easy to forget how influential British television has been around the world. I spent last week in South Korea where the whole broadcasting system was designed on the British model of 20 years ago. There are two public-service broadcasters in the country: one, like the BBC, is funded by the licence fee; the other by advertising. The latter is owned by the state, with no pressure to make profits; all its advertising revenue is ploughed back into a mixture of popular and minority programming.
The commercial model is not unlike the one you would have found in Britain until the late Eighties. In those days you won an ITV licence by what you promised in the way of programming and you retained it, or not, by the strength of your output. Making money was irrelevant, partly because you were taxed at such a high rate on profits that they didn't matter much anyway.
That system led to all sorts of ills - inefficiency, union domination, weak management - but at least it meant that everyone in the company cared about the programmes. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case in ITV today. I recently met someone who had been commissioned to make a series of regional programmes for one of the ITV franchises. The producer was told "we don't care what they are but they mustn't cost more than £5,000 for half an hour".
Of course it was the coming of Channels 4 and Five, plus multi-channel television via cable and satellite, which changed all that. ITV could be one thing when it had a monopoly on selling television advertising in Britain; it's quite another today when it faces real commercial competition for both viewers and advertisers. Fifteen years ago ITV was judged by the quality of its service, today it is predominantly judged by how much profit it makes. As a result it is much more efficient but completely obsessed with money.
In South Korea the advertiser-funded public-service broadcaster, MBC, is beginning to face up to the problems of the multi-channel world. Unlike ITV it doesn't want, or need, to go fully down the commercial route. Like Channel 4, it still cares passionately about its public service role, particularly in the field of education, but it is facing the problem of ever greater audience fragmentation, as more and more channels are launched.
MBC's response so far has been to make a lot of very powerful and popular drama series, which also sell very successfully in Japan, and to use the money from these to sustain the minority areas of its public-service output - a bit like the income from Big Brother being used to support Channel 4 News. The question MBC is wrestling with now is how sustainable this model will prove in the future.
With new channels popping up every day as a result of the digital revolution, the question MBC faces is whether it will have to become more of a business, as ITV did. I suspect that MBC hopes to find a middle way, in which money doesn't come to dominate all. You can see why. Its current president is a documentary film-maker who cares passionately about public broadcasting. Contrast that with ITV, whose chairman is a former banker, whose chief executive is an accountant from the catering industry and whose director of broadcasting is an advertising salesman. Fifteen years ago ITV was all about programmes; you'd be hard pressed to say that today.
Rise of the red button culture
Every so often on television something suddenly goes from being a minority activity to being mainstream. You see it happen with television programmes - The Office and Little Britain are good examples. But the same can also happen with new technology. The latest television service suddenly to go mainstream is the interactive red button on digital television.
Pioneered by BSkyB for its football coverage, interactivity started slowly. In terms of numbers it first began to take off when BBC Sport produced interactive Wimbledon, which meant the viewer could push the red button to choose from four live tennis matches.
But figures recently published show the big breakthrough for interactivity came with this summer's Olympics. Amazingly, nearly 10 million people chose to watch a different event to the one chosen for the main BBC channel.
Of course true television interactivity - where the individual viewer will be able to pull down a programme just for him or her - will only come with the broadband television that BT is about to pioneer. What the Olympics showed is that given the right offerings, the public appetite is enormous.Reuse content