Mark Thompson: Broadcasters can still offer a public service

Taken from a speech by the chief executive of Channel 4 at a media convention held in Oxford

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It's easy to define public-service broadcasting narrowly, as a kind of comfort zone full of safe middle-class totems: Daniel Deronda, Blue Peter; opera, yes; pop music, well, only if it's not too popular.

Any modern argument for public intervention in the broadcasting and communications markets (the public status of Channel 4, the licence fee) has to be grounded in the notion of market failure – the case that there are certain goods that society believes the public should have, even if the market does not provide them.

One justification for these so-called "merit goods" might be a belief that someone – the Government, Ofcom, the broadcasters – has more information about what's good for consumers than the consumers. But a second, more powerful, potential quality of merit goods is their externalities, their positive secondary benefits over and above the immediate benefit they confer on consumers.

It's obvious how certain traditional public-service genres might come into the category of merit goods – news programmes that lead to a better informed society and a stronger democracy, and educational programmes that lead to a better-skilled and more competitive workforce.

But the concept of merit goods has a wider relevance for public-service broadcasting. Buried, Tony Garnet's new prison drama, is gripping; but we believe it could also change minds about life in Britain's jails in a way that we couldn't do in a news or current affairs programme. This is a point where public service's original cultural project and modern economic theory come together.

To me, public-service broadcasters can be seen as engines to create as many merit goods as possible across as wide a range of genres as possible. I think that this approach is preferable to one that restricts "true" public service to a handful of traditional genres or that conjures with concepts such as "quality" and "distinctiveness".

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