Conor Dignam on Broadcasting: C4 deserves support from Ofcom but not at the expense of the BBC
Monday 18 August 2008
The British television industry is again caught up in a blizzard of briefing notes, as communications' regulator Ofcom considers what public service broadcasting should look like beyond digital switchover.
Ofcom's review is designed to ensure a plurality of public service providers once the British broadcasting market is fully digital. It's the watchdog's way of saying that public service broadcasting is facing a crisis in the near future, where the only supplier we might be able to rely upon would be the BBC.
The review is driven primarily by the fact that the established order of analogue TV, in which broadcasters accepted public service obligations in exchange for winning licences, is over. So Ofcom is moving ahead with devising some new form of public intervention in the TV market (in addition to the BBC), and clearly working on the basis that plurality of public service provision is likely to mean plurality of public service funding mechanisms.
But the longer this exercise goes on, and the harder one looks at TV's current set up, the more it raises questions about whether another new, and significant, intervention in the market is really required or justified.
There are real risks with some of the options being considered. One of the most likely outcomes, fairly heavily hinted at by Ofcom, is that the other publicly owned broadcaster Channel 4 may receive more direct support, to bridge what the channel has identified as a £150m future funding gap.
But there are significant questions about any approach which gives C4 direct access to public funds. The first is what such a funding model would do for C4's identity. The BBC's chairman Michael Lyons was probably overstating it recently when he claimed that giving C4 part of the licence fee would effectively turn it into BBC5; but it was a clever way of getting across the message that such a move would fundamentally alter C4's position as a public purpose broadcaster that has never had to directly depend on public funds. Such a change would put at risk the spirit and purpose that has made C4 so successful.
That's without going into the inevitable legal challenges that any such move would face in the European Court by commercial rivals who would not sit back while C4 received direct state-aid but also competed for advertising revenues.
Both C4 and ITV can still be expected to deliver public service output for some years to come. ITV can huff and puff about regulatory overload but if its executive chairman Michael Grade doesn't want to be a PSB then he can hand back the broadcaster's terrestrial licence – and go fully commercial. Both ITV, C4 and many other commercial broadcasters will still invest significantly in the kind of quality content we might classify as PSB (because it's an original UK production and quality TV) because it has to compete with the BBC for audience share.
None of this means the BBC is simply allowed to grow bigger and more complacent. If there really is a "digital surplus" in the licence fee, once switchover from analogue has been achieved, then perhaps the government can actually reduce the cost of the BBC licence fee to viewers.
This laissez-faire approach may appear complacent to some readers. It isn't. Of course, C4 is an essential part of the PSB ecology and must be helped where necessary and in an appropriate way. But it's also clear that C4 has already had an enormous amount of support in terms of the spectrum it has been granted for its digital brands. It's also clear that ITV can't go on forever with its PSB obligations.
With the publicly funded BBC and the publicly owned C4, along with natural competition from the commercial market, there is enough in the mix to preserve a degree of public service plurality in the digital future.
Ofcom, when it reports back in September, must be careful to ensure the issues facing public service broadcasting are not exaggerated – and that any new intervention in the market is in proportion with what is really required.
No more flagellationbut a little bit of nudity
The movers and shakers of the British television industry will once again descend on Edinburgh over the bank holiday weekend for the annual TV Festival.
One of the highlights of the event will be a live How to Look Good Naked, where we're promised a couple of TV execs in the buff (potentially horrifying, but bound to attract an audience). This year, in response to the scandals and scams that have rocked the industry over the last 18 months, the organisers of the festival have come up with the theme of We Love TV – to celebrate all that is great about British TV.
It's easy to understand why they've done this; after all, the industry has spent almost two years now in a process of self-flagellation. You can imagine the festival committee saying "Let's stand up for TV, talking about the positives and all the great stuff."
This is a perfectly rational response to the events of the last couple of years. There is no excusing the actions of those producers and executives who have let down their viewers and their peers – but a sense of perspective has been missing in some of the wilder coverage. Putting the hair shirts away for this year's festival is a good idea.
The problem with the theme of "loving TV" is it doesn't really go anywhere as a theme for a conference programme. All in all – naked TV executives aside – it looks a fairly predictable Edinburgh, which is why for the first time in six years I'll be taking a full bank holiday rather than making the trip to Scotland.
I'm sure that there will be plenty of people who will let me know if I've missed much.
ITV programmes chief Fincham could probably do with a stiff drink
ITV has cancelled is usual drinks party at next weekend's Edinburgh TV Festival where journalists mix with ITV executives who, through gritted teeth, would dodge questions about the network's latest woes. Cost-cutting may be one reason for cancelling the event, but I suspect it's also a sign of ITV's lack of confidence, and a general resentment about the press it gets. Executive chairman Michael Grade isn't coming along to Edinburgh either.
The network continues to complain about its regulatory woes to Ofcom – but blaming the regulator can only go so far. ITV's chiefs have to take responsibility for the shows they commission and schedule.
Last week it announced an autumn line-up that featured new dramas such as Lost in Austen and Above Suspicion, the new work from Lynda La Plante featuring a female detective played by Kelly Reilly. ITV has high hopes for its new musical entertainment show Britannia High, which it prays will capture the millions of young fans of Disney's High School Musical.
New director of television Peter Fincham has had nothing to do with the autumn schedule of programmes announced last week. He has only been in his new job for a matter of weeks so most of these shows will have been originally commissioned by his predecessor Simon Shaps.
But Fincham will be hoping he is lucky with what Shaps has left him. He will certainly need some luck. Last week Broadcast reported that ITV's share of audience for the previous week had dropped to its lowest level since 2001 – just 16.1 per cent. Some of this can be blamed on the dog days of summer and ITV's deliberately choosing to field a weak schedule when millions of people are on holiday, but the fact is shows such as drama Harley Street have failed to find audiences. After England let ITV down by failing to qualify for Euro 2008 – costing the broadcaster an estimated £10m in revenues, ITV chiefs will be hoping the team does better in its home qualifying matches for the World Cup, which ITV has won the right to show. But Fincham, who is one of TV's sharpest operators, has his work cut out. There won't be any honeymoon period. Advertisers and the City want better results now – so that means the autumn schedule will be vitally important, even if he had nothing to do with creating it.
Conor Dignam is digital content director for Emap Inform
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