On 27 May 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Gilbert of Panteg to move that this House takes note of the Report from the Communications and Digital Committee Public service broadcasting: as vital as ever (1st Report, Session 2019, HL Paper 16)

Committee report

On 5 November 2019, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee published its report ‘Public service broadcasting: as vital as ever’. The committee launched its inquiry into the future for public service broadcasting in the context of the rising popularity of video on demand services on 12 March 2019.

As set out in the summary of the report, the purpose of the committee’s inquiry was to understand:

  • The contemporary role of public service broadcasters (PSB).
  • The financial pressures that PSB face.
  • Whether the PSB compact was fit for the age of video on demand.

In its report, the committee outlined that the evidence it collected “overwhelmingly indicated that public service broadcasting is as important as ever to our democracy and culture, as well as to the UK’s image on the world stage”. It also said that public service broadcasting “remains essential to the UK media”.

However, the committee noted that “PSBs are struggling to achieve their mission to serve all audiences in the face of increased competition and changing viewing habits”. It made a range of recommendations in the areas of broadcasting, TV production, and the PSB compact. These included:

  • A modest increase in the number of listed sports events, which must be shown free to air.
  • Changes to high-end TV tax relief and the apprenticeship levy.
  • A review of the terms of trade between PSBs and independent producers to determine whether they should still apply to larger companies.

The committee also said it did not support a levy on subscription video on demand services (SVODs).

Government response

The Government responded to the committee’s report on 12 February 2020. In its introduction, the Government said that PSB “provides 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.

It then set out its response to each of the recommendations put forward by the committee. Regarding the recommendations set out above, the Government said that:

  • It does not plan to review the list of free-to-air sports events, as it believes the current listed sports regime strikes the right balance between free-to-air sports for the public and the ability of rights holders to negotiate agreements for their sports.
  • It did not plan to make changes to the high-end TV tax relief scheme, as the aim of the scheme is to incentivise high-quality television programmes.
  • It would continue to engage with employers in all sectors of the economy to help them realise the benefits of apprenticeships.
  • The decision to include the terms of trade as part of a review was a matter for Ofcom as the independent regulator.
  • It agreed that a levy on SVODs was not appropriate and has no plans to introduce one.

Subsequent developments

Ofcom’s review into public service broadcasting

On 27 February 2020, Ofcom published a five-year review into public service broadcasting, which covered 2014 to 2018. Its key findings were that:

  • Audiences continue to highly value the purpose of PSB.
  • Viewing figures for PSB channels have continued to decline, especially among younger people.
  • PSB channels have generally fulfilled the PSB remit and investment by those channels has played an important role in supporting the UK’s creative economy.
  • Maintaining the current level and range of programmes is a challenge for the PSB channels.
  • Whilst the extended choice in content and the growing investment in original UK programming is generally positive for audience and the sector as a whole, there are some significant differences in the mix of genres offered by different providers, as well as the availability of this content to all audiences in the UK.

Ofcom also ran a consultation into the future of public service media from 8 December 2020 until 12 May 2021. It said it will make final recommendations to the Government in the summer of 2021.

Ofcom has launched a new website to support the wider debate into the future of PSB.

Strategic review of public service broadcasting

In November 2020, the Government announced the appointment of members to a Public Service Broadcasting Advisory Panel. The ten members are from broadcasting or related sector backgrounds and have experience at senior level of companies such as BT, Channel 4, Sky, ITN and Facebook.

The panel’s terms of reference state that it will meet six times over the course of a year. The purpose of the panel is to provide independent expertise and advice for the Government’s strategic review of public service broadcasting. The terms of reference set out the four areas the panel will advise on:

  • If the concept of public service broadcasting is needed, and if so, what a modern PSB should contribute to economic, cultural and democratic life across the UK.
  • How PSB should be delivered in an age where media consumption is increasingly diversified, including a consideration of the future role of the Channel 4 Television Corporation.
  • Whether the legislative and regulatory framework for PSB, when viewed in the context of the media landscape as a whole, needs to change to ensure that the PSB system can continue to deliver sustainably on its objectives.
  • Whether the current funding model for PSB is sustainable in the longer term and remains fit for purpose.

The Government said that the panel would not consider the licence fee settlement.

In response to a written question in February 2021, the Minister of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale, said that the Government would set out the next steps for the review later this year.

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Cover image by K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash.