On 3 November 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Lord Foster of Bath (Liberal Democrat) to move that this House takes note of the future of public service broadcasting, in the year of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s centenary.

The BBC was first formed as the British Broadcasting Company by a group of wireless manufacturers on 18 October 1922. The British Broadcasting Corporation was established by a Royal Charter in January 1927. The charter is the constitutional basis for the BBC, setting out the BBC’s mission and public purposes amongst other governance and regulatory arrangements such as the composition of the BBC Board. The Framework Agreement between the government and the BBC sits alongside the charter and provides further detail on some of the topics outlined in the charter, for example the BBC’s funding and regulatory duties.

In the 100 years since its establishment as the British Broadcasting Company, both the BBC and the wider UK broadcasting landscape have radically changed. Technological innovations ranging from the invention of television to the development of the internet have allowed people to consume media content in a range of ways. Most recently, the rise of video-on-demand streaming services has raised questions about the future of public service broadcasting in the UK and how it can stand out in an increasingly competitive media landscape.

1. What is public service broadcasting?

Public service broadcasters (PSBs) in the UK are the BBC, those providing channel 3 services (ITV in England and Wales, STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland), Channel 4, Channel 5 and the Welsh language service S4C. Ofcom has explained that “while all BBC public service television channels are PSB channels, only the main channels of each of the other public service broadcasters have this status.”

The different PSBs have different models of funding and ownership:

  • The BBC is principally funded through the television licence fee.
  • The Channel 3 licence holders are fully commercial.
  • Channel 4 is publicly owned but commercially funded.
  • Channel 5 is fully commercial.
  • S4C is part publicly and part commercially funded.

Various obligations are placed on PSBs. These include that PSBs must comply with programme and output quotas which set minimum levels of the types of programmes they must show. Ofcom explains in its 2022 annual report that these “originate in the Communications Act 2003 […], the BBC Charter and Agreement, or in European legislation”. Ofcom has a duty under the Communications Act 2003 to monitor and enforce these quotas.

Section 264(4) of the Communications Act 2003 sets out the purposes of public television broadcasting in the UK as follows:

(a)     the provision of relevant television services which secure that programmes dealing with a wide range of subject-matters are made available for viewing;

(b)     the provision of relevant television services in a manner which (having regard to the days on which they are shown and the times of day at which they are shown) is likely to meet the needs and satisfy the interests of as many different audiences as practicable;

(c)     the provision of relevant television services which (taken together and having regard to the same matters) are properly balanced, so far as their nature and subject-matters are concerned, for meeting the needs and satisfying the interests of the available audiences; and

(d)     the provision of relevant television services which (taken together) maintain high general standards with respect to the programmes included in them, and, in particular with respect to—

(i)     the contents of the programmes;

(ii)    the quality of the programme making; and

(iii)   the professional skill and editorial integrity applied in the making of the programmes.

Ofcom has stated that the PSB purposes must be fulfilled in a way that is compatible with the PSB objectives. The objectives are contained in section 264(6) of the Communications Act 2003, and Ofcom has summarised them as follows:

  • inform, educate and entertain
  • reflect and support cultural activity in the UK, such as drama, comedy and music
  • facilitate civic understanding and fair and well-informed debate on news and current affairs
  • satisfy a wide range of different sporting and other leisure interests
  • include a suitable quantity and range of educational programmes and programmes dealing with science, religion and other beliefs, social issues, matters of international significance or interest and matters of specialist interest
  • include a suitable quantity and range of high-quality and original programmes for children and young people
  • reflect the lives and concerns of different communities and cultural interests and traditions within the UK and locally in different parts of the UK and include programmes made outside the M25

Individual PSBs have further specific obligations placed on them. For example, section 265 of the Communications Act 2003 sets out the public service remits for Channel 3, 4 and 5 services. The BBC’s Royal Charter sets out its object, mission, and purposes.

The House of Commons Digital, Culture Media and Sport Committee has stated that there are three core principles within public service broadcasting “that have come to be expected of the system, some of which are outlined in the Communications Act 2003 and some which have come to be generally accepted”. The committee identified these as follows:

  • Universality of access. There is an expectation that public service content is widely available and free at the point of access. The content is expected to represent the diversity of the UK, and the range of genres covered should reflect this.
  • Accuracy and impartiality. News and current affairs content made by PSBs should be accurate, reliable and impartial.
  • Independence. The committee said that PSBs should be able to function “free from government interference or political pressure”.

Ofcom has explained that the prominence of the traditional “linear” public service broadcasting channels within electronic programme guides (EPGs) is protected by rules set out in its EPG code (linear television is television viewed at the time of broadcast). Ofcom conducted a consultation on prominence in public service broadcasting in 2018. It published changes to the EPG code in 2019 and published recommendations for government for a new framework “to keep PSB TV prominent in an online world”.

2. Does the legislation around public service broadcasting need to be updated?

In recent years the UK media landscape has changed with the introduction of commercial ‘on demand’ streaming providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Disney Plus. Within this context the future of PSBs and the legislation underpinning them has recently been considered by parliamentary committees.

In March 2021, the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published a report on ‘The future of public service broadcasting’. The committee found that support for the principles behind public service broadcasting “remains strong”. However, it said the Communications Act 2003 was old and pre-dated the rise of streaming platforms: “In short, the Communications Act 2003 is no longer fit for purpose”. The committee argued action was required in four key areas:

  • New primary legislation was required to replace the 2003 act. The committee highlighted a need to reform rules around prominence “to ensure that the PSB compact is sustainable within the new, increasingly internet-based audio-visual landscape”.
  • The committee argued that PSBs were increasingly having to rely on third party social media platforms to distribute content to younger audiences. It said that the remit of the digital markets unit should be expanded to “consider whether the dominance of online platforms gives them undue influence over the distribution of, and access to, PSB content”.
  • The committee argued that requirements for diversity reporting needed to be extended to streaming services.
  • PSB funding should be addressed by the government. The committee argued that if PSBs were expected to maintain linear broadcasting as well as expanding on-demand services they would need sufficient funding.

The committee also made a number of specific recommendations in its report, for example that PSB content hosted on other streaming services “should be clearly labelled as such and branded with the logo of the PSB from which the content originated”.

The government responded to the committee in June 2021. The government said it was examining the remits of PSBs as part of a strategic review of public service broadcasting. It would consider if changes were needed “to ensure that PSBs continue to deliver these benefits in light of broader industry and economic trends”. On the issue of prominence, the government said that it was committed to acting on Ofcom’s prominence recommendations, including through legislation. In April 2022, the government under Boris Johnson published a white paper on the future of broadcasting and announced a media bill in the May 2022 Queen’s Speech. These are discussed in further detail in section 3.

Ofcom also responded to the House of Commons Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport report.

The House of Lords has also recently considered this issue. In November 2019, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee published its report ‘Public service broadcasting: As vital as ever’. The committee wrote that PSBs now faced competition from “hundreds of other channels and online services”. It said that almost half of UK households now subscribed to a video-on-demand service. The committee said its evidence “overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture”. It argued that other media could not “bring the nation together” in a way that public service broadcasting could. The committee argued that the universality of public service broadcasting was essential. However, despite support the committee said that PSBs were struggling to serve all audiences because of increased competition and changing viewing habits. In particular, it argued that they were not serving younger people and people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds well enough:

Viewing of BBC channels by 16–34-year-olds has halved since 2010; this group spends only two minutes watching BBC iPlayer each day, compared with 40 minutes on Netflix. BAME viewers spend less time watching public service broadcasters than the average. PSBs’ legitimacy depends on serving these groups better in future.

One of the committee’s recommendations was that Ofcom should report on the diversity of commissioning teams at PSBs “to ensure that under-served audiences are represented at all stages of programme development”. It also said that the government should empower Ofcom to collect data on the diversity of production crews making programmes for PSBs. The committee made a number of other recommendations, including that there “should be an independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee” involving the establishment of an independent body to oversee it.

The government responded to the committee’s report on 12 February 2020. In its introduction, the government said that PSBs “provide significant cultural, economic and democratic value to the UK” but that the broadcasters will need to adapt to the changing media landscape to sustain their value. The government also responded to the committee’s recommendations. For example, on an independent process for setting the television licence fee it said it believed it remained “appropriate to determine the level of the licence fee in discussions with the BBC as part of the licence fee settlement process”, but it recognised the importance of greater transparency. In April 2022, the government under Boris Johnson published a white paper on the future of broadcasting and announced a media bill in the May 2022 Queen’s Speech. These are discussed in further detail in section 3.

In February 2020, Ofcom published a five-year review on how public service broadcasting has delivered for UK audiences between 2014 and 2018. This was published alongside a five-year review of Channel 4’s performance in meeting its media content duties:

Both reports fed into Ofcom’s broader work on public service broadcasting.

In July 2021, Ofcom published its final recommendations to the government on the future of public service media. Ofcom argued that the Covid-19 pandemic had “reinforced the special importance” of public service broadcasting. People had sought out “high-quality, trusted and accurate news, entertainment programmes and educational content to support home schooling”. Ofcom made a number of recommendations to the government, including the following:

Our first recommendation to government is that there should be a revised set of PSM [public service media] objectives, supporting the transition from public service broadcasting to public service media.

[…]

Second, we are repeating our urgent call for legislation to secure prominence for live and on-demand public service content across all major TV services and platforms.

[…]

Our third recommendation is that the government modernises legislation so the same requirements supporting independent productions apply to all broadcast TV and online PSM content.

Ofcom argued that legislation needed to be “overhauled for the digital age”.

On 29 June 2022, Ofcom published its report to the secretary of state ahead of a new licensing round for the Channel 3 and Channel 5 services. In its report Ofcom reiterated its belief that changes to prominence rules were important for the future of public service broadcasting:

Reforms to the prominence and availability rules are important to strengthen the future sustainable delivery of the PSB licence obligations. The licensees highlighted this as a key concern in the information they provided to us for this report, as such reforms should help mitigate the decline in the value of existing licence benefits. Crucially, the reforms will help protect benefits to audiences by making sure PSB services and content continues to be widely available and easy to discover online.

3. Government policy on the future of broadcasting

3.1 Public service broadcasting review

In November 2020, the government announced it was appointing an expert panel to advise on the future of public service broadcasting. The panel would provide independent expertise and advice as part of the government’s strategic review of public service broadcasting. The government also published the panel’s terms of reference.

In March 2022, the government published a response to a written question which confirmed the panel had met six times, but was not expected to meet further. It confirmed the minutes of the panel would not be published. The response also stated the government would set out the conclusions of its strategic review of public service broadcasting “in due course”.

In a separate response to a written question from March 2022, the government said the panel was “one element” of its strategic review of public service broadcasting. The government said the review would draw on multiple sources, including Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting, and reports from the committees in both Houses of Parliament.

The strategic review fed into the government’s broadcasting white paper, published in April 2022. Chapter 3 states “this chapter sets out the conclusions of the government’s strategic review of public service broadcasting”.

3.2 Up next: The government’s vision for the broadcasting sector

On 28 April 2022, the government under Boris Johnson published a white paper on the future of broadcasting. This included proposals covering television, online and radio broadcasting.

One of the most high-profile plans set out in the white paper was the privatisation of Channel 4, which would require legislation. The government said the move would “ensure that Channel 4 can continue to thrive and grow its impact for years to come as part of the wider public service broadcasting ecology in the UK”. The channel is currently publicly owned, but does not receive public funds. It is run as a not-for-profit corporation without shareholders and it states that most of its revenue comes from advertising. The confirmation of the government’s plans to change the channel’s ownership follows a consultation which ran in 2021.

Reports of the plans to sell Channel 4 were met with some criticism, with fears expressed about the possible impact on independent UK production companies and the diversity of its programming. The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, believed the sale would likely end up being to a foreign company, and described it as “cultural vandalism”. She predicted it would negatively impact jobs and the wider creative industries in the UK. Channel 4 stated that it was disappointed with the announcement, claiming it did not take into account the “significant public interest concerns which have been raised” and alternatives put forward by Channel 4 itself.

The government sought to address some of these concerns in its white paper. It said it was not a decision it had taken lightly but said it needed to consider the “longer-term outlook for Channel 4 and ensure it has the best range of tools available for future success”. Discussing concerns about the impact of the change on the channel’s programming and the revenues of smaller production companies, the government stated that it expected a new owner would continue to “deliver outcomes in line with those we see today”. The white paper continued:

The right owner for Channel 4 will be one who shares our ambition for the business and our belief in what makes it special. The government will require this new owner to adhere to ongoing commitments, similar to those Channel 4 has today, whilst allowing Channel 4 to adapt and grow, keeping its distinctive voice on our screens for years to come. This will include retaining its remit to provide distinctive, educational, innovative and experimental programming that represents the breadth of society. It will also include equivalent obligations for news and current affairs provision, to show original programmes, and to continue to make programmes outside London and across the UK. In particular, we will expect a Channel 4 under new ownership to continue working with independent production companies right across the UK. We are not trying to change the distinctive role Channel 4 plays; we are proactively giving it the best set of tools to succeed in the market context that is emerging.

The white paper added that the government would look to use some of the proceeds of the sale to “deliver a new creative dividend for the sector”.

Following the appointment of Liz Truss as prime minister in September 2022, the government indicated that it was reassessing the Channel 4 privatisation policy. In response to an oral question in the House of Commons on 20 October 2022, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Michelle Donelan said that she was “currently looking at the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further details to the House in due course”. In a question answered by the government on 27 October 2022, following the appointment of Rishi Sunak as prime minister, it restated that the secretary of state was “carefully considering the business case for a sale of Channel 4” and would “set out more detail in due course”.

Regarding the BBC, the 2022 white paper said that the government would be carrying out a review of the licence fee funding model ahead of the next charter period and would provide more detailed plans in the coming months. In the meantime, it said the TV licence would be frozen at £159 for the next two years and that it would then rise in line with inflation. On the licence fee being enforceable by criminal sanctions, the government said it remained concerned and saw this as “increasingly disproportionate and unfair in a modern public service broadcasting system”. In answer to a parliamentary written question on 27 October 2022, the government said it had decided to keep the issue under consideration. More broadly, it argued it was necessary to look at the BBC’s funding model as a whole to ensure its long-term sustainability. The government said it would set out further details on its plans for the future of the licence fee in due course.

In addition, the white paper contained plans to introduce legislation in the following areas:

  • Giving Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, similar to the broadcasting code, to ensure television-like content will be subject to similar standards regardless of how it is accessed (for example, through Netflix). The government hopes this will improve protection from harmful material. It also said it would work with Ofcom on legislative proposals to address the divergence in the provision of access services (such as subtitles and audio descriptions) between broadcast and on-demand services.
  • Setting out the importance of programmes broadcast in the UK’s indigenous regional and minority languages.
  • Ensuring PSBs’ content is easily accessible to UK audiences on connected devices (such as smart televisions) and major online platforms.
  • Giving PSBs more flexibility in how they deliver their remits.
  • Allowing S4C (the free-to-air Welsh language channel) and the BBC to adapt the framework requiring the BBC to provide S4C with a specific number of hours of television programming, so that they can work together on a new agreement more reflective of the current broadcasting landscape.
  • Deregulating commercial radio (as set out in a 2017 consultation) and continuing to encourage the transition to digital radio. (Further consideration of the future of commercial radio can be found in the government’s ‘Digital radio and audio review’, which was published in October 2021.)

The white paper also stated that the government would consult on how best to embed the importance of “distinctively British content” into the PSB quota system. It said it would review whether the scope of the “listed events” regime, which ensures sporting events such as Wimbledon and the football World Cup are on free-to-air television, should be extended to also cover digital rights.

On the issue of prominence, the government said that it would introduce a new regime for on-demand content:

As the [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] select committee made clear in their report ‘The Future of Public Service Broadcasting’, swift action is required to address this disparity between traditional TV platforms and new ones. Building on the recommendations made by Ofcom in 2019 and 2021, we will introduce a new prominence regime for on-demand television. This will ensure public service content is both available and easy to find on designated TV platforms. This includes appropriate recognition for the unique relevance of the public service content produced by STV and S4C in particular areas of the UK.

On 26 May 2022, the government launched the mid-term review of the BBC to “focus on impartiality and ‘levelling up’ job opportunities”. The Royal Charter includes a requirement for a mid-term review between 2022 and 2024 “focusing on the governance and regulatory arrangements for the BBC”. Updates were also made to the framework agreement that sits alongside the Royal Charter. The government stated that the updates included commitments for the BBC to:

  • more fully reflect and represent people and perspectives in the UK that currently are under-represented in the BBC’s content
  • increase investment outside of London, with 60% of radio and 50% of television programme production expenditure to be outside London by the end of 2027
  • deliver 1,000 apprenticeships per year by the end of 2025
  • make progress on workforce accessibility targets, including the new target for 25% of staff to be from low socio-economic backgrounds
  • report on how the BBC’s commercial activities increase the UK’s cultural and economic impact abroad

3.3 Media Bill

The 2022 Queen’s speech contained a media bill which would act as a legislative vehicle for several of the government’s policies in the area of public service broadcasting, including the privatisation of Channel 4.

The government said the bill would also make changes to legislation around PSBs to:

Reform decades-old laws to boost our public service broadcasters, which develop talent and skills, drive growth in the creative industries across the UK and deliver distinctive, diverse British content.

The main elements of the bill were set out by the government as follows:

  • ensuring that public service content is prominent, available and easily accessible across a range of platforms
  • updating the public broadcasting framework to better facilitate the delivery of public service broadcasting through digital platforms and promoting the production and distribution of distinctively British content
  • giving Ofcom new regulatory powers to draft and enforce a video-on-demand code to make sure services which target and profit from UK audiences are subject to stricter rules protecting UK audiences from harmful material
  • allowing for the conversion of Channel 4 from a statutory corporation to a new corporate structure that could be sold, and other changes concerning Channel 4’s obligations and remit to ensure the sustainability of the broadcaster
  • updating the public service remit of S4C, the Welsh language television service, to include digital and online services
  • removing the current geographical broadcasting restrictions so that S4C can broaden its reach and offer its content on a range of new platforms in the UK and beyond
  • repealing Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which would (if commenced) force new publishers to pay the costs of any court judgment if they were not a member of the approved regulator, regardless of the outcome of the court judgment

In a written question answered on 24 October 2022, the government said that it would introduce the bill when parliamentary time allowed.

4. Read more


Cover image by Nicolas J Leclercq on Unsplash