Raymond Snoddy on Broadcasting

Why viewers can expect fur to fly in the big battle over worthy telly
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The Independent Online

The starting pistol has been fired on a brand new broadcasting game that could run for years – getting your hands on a nice pot of money to make worthy programmes. In an ideal world the money would come from the public purse but, what the hell, if it has to come from a rival's budget so be it. Prepare yourself for the likelihood of some unseemly behaviour of the sort that shouldn't really occur before the watershed.

In launching the first phase of its review of public service broadcasting, the communications regulator Ofcom has set out a variety of options for the future. But not all options are equal. You could just let current trends continue and accept that commercial broadcasters should become more and more commercial. As a result, the BBC would be the sole public service broadcaster and the overall provision of such programmes would fall. That, Ofcom believes, would not be a good idea and the regulator is supported by opinion polls saying that viewers like competition between public service broadcasters – plurality of provision as it's known in the trade.

But there is a crisis – or "crossroads" as Ofcom terms it. Viewing of the public service channels is down by 17 per cent between 2003 and 2007 – 22 per cent amongst 16- to 24-year-olds.

The five public service broadcasters now account for only two thirds of television viewing. Some would see such a performance as remarkable evidence of residual power and loyalty given the level of increased competition, but let's not quibble.

Ofcom believes that things are now so serious as a result of falling investment by ITV 1, Channel 4 and Five in content and the loss of choice in many types of public service programming, such as children's, that a new funding framework has to be in place by 2011.

So, on to the endgame. More money is needed and it could come from a variety of sources including – government money, the licence fee (or "excess" money that the BBC has to spend on analogue switch-off up to 2012), industry levies or regulatory benefits, including the continued access to broadcasting spectrum.

The interesting question is who pays, loses and receives. You can have a fund and anyone can apply for production money, though then there is the problem of who decides what is commissioned and whether a mainstream broadcast slot has to be attached.

Channel 4 would much prefer a simpler approach – give them the £150m or so that they believe they need to meet their perceived funding gap. They will not get an easy ride. Even those rival broadcasters who think Channel 4 is a good thing have been beavering away in its published accounts to judge the scale of the crisis it faces. They're coming up with some unhelpful information. While the channel's viewing figures are clearly down, between 2002 and 2006 the channel's reserves increased by 28 per cent to £469.5m.

Rivals estimate, in information to be sent to both Ofcom and the Government, that if you strip out Channel 4's US acquisition budget and such things as adventures in digital radio, the underlying profit of the main channel was up last year by between £30m and £40m.

These are scarcely impartial interpretations but you can see the scale of the skirmishes about to break out. At the same time you can be sure that the BBC will be putting teams together to defend the purity of the licence fee and ITV will be arguing against all those dreadful public service obligations that are no longer part of the modern age etc., etc.

It will be fun. Stand back and watch the fur fly as the debate on the future of public service broadcasting in the UK gets under way and some pin up their wallets while others try to get their noses in the trough.

A historic broadcast obscenity ruling

What do you do about what the Americans call "fleeting expletives" on live TV?

Show a live pop concert even for the best possible causes, such as saving the planet, and you will get at least six "fucks", with familial variants, from the likes of Madonna and Phil Collins.

You could ask them not to do it because such behaviour clearly offends large sections of the audience when children are watching, but you won't get very far. For some people, mouthing obscenities is the equivalent of breathing or saying "Hi" to your fans.

It might be more practical to broadcast events such as Live Earth with a brief delay, so offensive material can be taken out or at least obscured. There will be cries of "censorship", though no meaningful human communication will have been tampered with.

Certainly the BBC will have to do something after it was forced by Ofcom to broadcast on Saturday what amounted to a grovelling apology for a "serious and repeated" failure to comply with broadcasting regulations in its Live Earth coverage.

At least the watchdog has taken a measured and proportionate approach – unlike its US equivalent.

Fox has had a $91,000 (£46,000) indecency fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission after the network broadcast "fleeting expletives" by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie during live music awards in 2002 and 2003.

Fox refused to pay. The issue has already been to the Federal Appeals Court, and now it's on the way to the Supreme Court.

That means that sometime towards the end of 2009, for the first time in the age of the internet and in more than 30 years, there will be a ruling on what constitutes broadcast obscenity. It should make enlightening reading for Ofcom.

If Global's going national, the locals may tune into its rivals

The first bits are starting to fly off commercial radio now that Global Radio controls more than 40 per cent of commercial listening and close to 50 per cent of radio advertising.

Galaxy and Heart, both part of the Global empire, led by its ambitious chief executive Ashley Tabor (right) and chairman Charles Allen, are to become essentially national radio brands with their localness largely limited to breakfast and drive-time programming. Similar processes could presumably soon get under way at some of the GCap stations, such as Xfm, following Global's £375m purchase of GCap at the beginning of this month.

The deal virtually removed commercial radio from the stock market with the exception of UTV's TalkSport, and SMG's Virgin Radio, which could also soon be sold.

The good news is that private owners will remove commercial radio from the torture inflicted by City stock analysts and the demoralising effect of perpetually plunging share prices. This should enable the owners of commercial radio to invest for the long term.

The downside is that, in an era of increasingly expensive debt, thoughts of reducing costs will never be too far away and the creation of more networked national radio brands will be seen as a nice quick way to cut costs.

There's another problem. Increasingly, advertisers want to speak to consumers in their local environment, and research shows how much people value a local sense of identity. So the changing nature of commercial radio could turn out to be an opportunity for local newspapers and for BBC local radio.

Raymond Snoddy presents BBC Television's viewer access programme 'NewsWatch'

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