Smarten up your act, Smith warns TV channels

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The Independent Online
CHRIS SMITH is to insist that commercial television must provide "public service broadcasting" - a term which he intends to clarify.

The Government has become concerned that television is slipping downmarket, and the Culture Secretary is uneasy at the number of American programmes on Channel 4, and even more so at the titillation on Channel 5. He believes there is an unacceptably wide variation in standards among the ITV regions.

Mr Smith will remind broadcasting leaders of their responsibilities when he add- resses the Royal Television Society's annual convention next week. The convention will be attended by the BBC director-general, Sir John Birt, and his successor, Greg Dyke.

Mr Smith's anxieties are shared by the Prime Minister. And Mr Blair has asked to be kept informed on how well the BBC is maintaining standards. But Mr Smith is eager to remind broadcasters that there is also a public service remit, albeit a lesser one, for commercial stations. While he has no direct power over the commercial networks, a statement of intent will give the regulatory body, the Independent Television Commission, greater determination to use sanctions.

Mr Smith is understood to have been particularly alarmed by the recent MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival given by the ITV chairman, Richard Eyre. Mr Eyre suggested there the Reithian days of television having an educational duty were past.

"Public service broadcasting will soon be dead because it relies on regulators who will, in time, no longer be able to do a comprehensive job, because the vast number of sources of broadcast information will be impossible to monitor," he said.

Mr Eyre added that the idea of educating viewers as a public service was one "that belongs to yesterday". He added: "Free school milk doesn't work when the kids go and buy Coca-Cola because it's available, they prefer it and can afford it. Yet this is the foundation of public service broadcasting."

The Culture Secretary will vigorously oppose this view. In forthcoming speeches he will say: "Public service broadcasting is even more important now than it was 20 years ago." Mr Smith will stress the importance of educational programmes on television and, more broadly, the educational purpose of much of broadcasting. He will say the government does not accept that the Reithian approach is dead.

t Mr Smith is considering the Davies Report on BBC funding, which advocates a levy on viewers taking digital television. But sources say he cannot ignore the opposition of the commercial sector against the levy, and is approaching the consultation with an open mind.