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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 19:17 GMT 20:17 UK
Broadcasters take note of Ofcom report

By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

Ofcom graphic
More than 6,000 people were surveyed for the Ofcom review
Can it be true? Does the British public really think television soap operas are of greater value to society than programmes on religion and the arts?

That's what people have told the communications regulator Ofcom.

In its report on public service television, it says viewers also place a high value on news, sport and drama.

They also believe children should be given greater protection from unsuitable material and feel too many programmes are lacking in innovation.

Ofcom analysed five years of programmes and asked viewers in 6,000 homes what they most valued on the five main terrestrial channels.

High quality news topped the list of "public service" programming - 70 percent of respondents said it was important for society and to them personally.

Then came sport, drama and, perhaps surprisingly, soaps. Viewers said they valued them because they dealt with current social and health issues in an engaging way.

Underlying today's report is a major shift in viewing
Right at the bottom came arts and religious programmes - fewer than 10 percent thought these were of particular value to society.

This is an important report which will influence the "public service" obligations placed on the BBC, ITV and other commercial broadcasters.

It examines how much society gains, and what it should expect, from the five main terrestrial TV channels - and also how that is changing, now that half the country can watch dozens of other channels, via satellite, cable or Freeview.

'Commercial pressure'

The report raises questions such as how far the BBC and commercial broadcasters should be obliged to provide impartial news bulletins, regional and children's output, and arts and religious programmes.

ITV welcomed the view that soaps and sport play as important a public service role as the more traditional genres.

It has made it clear in the past that it hopes Ofcom will relax the obligations on it to provide arts and religious programmes.

Mick Desmond, chief executive of ITV Broadcasting, said: "Ofcom has rightly identified the massive economic changes taking place in the broadcasting industry.

"It has recognised the need for ITV1 to be able to play to its strengths when delivering public service broadcasting, and we look forward to working with Ofcom in next phase of its review."

Ed Richards, the partner in charge of the review, said the obligations on all broadcasters would be reconsidered, because of the growing competition between channels.

"In the medium term, I think there's no doubt that the greater commercial pressure means we'll need to reassess the balance of public service broadcasting obligations across the different channels in Britain today."

Choice 'cutting viewers'

Underlying today's report is a major shift in viewing. It shows that, in the past five years, the audience share held by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five has dropped from 87 percent to 76 percent.

Among younger viewers - the 16-34-year-olds - it's just 69 percent, and among ethnic minorities even lower - 56 percent.

That's because half of all homes now have digital TV, with a much greater choice of channels.

The report shows that last year in multi-channel homes, many key public-service programmes got less than half the share of viewing they attracted in terrestrial-only homes.

Horizon was down 50 percent, Newsnight 59 percent, The South Bank Show 65 percent and Songs of Praise down 66 percent.

Given greater choice, most viewers don't watch them.

For the BBC, the report is particularly important because it will feed into the government's review of its Charter.

Responding, it said it would be addressing many of these issues in its own publication on Charter Review, to be published in June.

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