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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 September, 2004, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Q&A: Public service broadcasting
Proposals for the future of public service broadcasting have been released by Ofcom. The plans, if implemented, could radically alter the face of British broadcasting.

WHAT IS OFCOM?

Ofcom is the government-appointed regulator of the communication industries. It regulates the commercial channels but has no official role in the regulation of BBC's public service remit.

WHY HAS OFCOM PUBLISHED THIS REPORT?

Ofcom is required to report on the health of public service broadcasting (PSB) every 5 years, including the work of the BBC. It is working with the public and broadcasters to define what public service broadcasting in the UK actually means, who should provide it and how it should be funded.

SO WHAT IS PUBLIC SERVICE BROADCASTING?

That's the big question. Ofcom defines it as "high quality, original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available" programming.

IS THERE A PROBLEM WITH UK TV?

There's no specific problem at present but TV in the UK is in a state of transition. Multi-channel TV is taking off, the switch-off of analogue signals has been set for 2012 and the BBC is currently negotiating with the government over its charter, which sets out what the BBC's role is and how it should be paid for.

WHAT DOES OFCOM SAY?

The watchdog says that public service broadcasting will not survive in the digital age if the current range of PSB offerings on state-backed (BBC) and commercial (ITV, Channel 4, Five) stations is not overhauled and if the way they are paid is not radically changed.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT FUNDING SITUATION?

The BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by the licence fee. Commercial channels ITV1, Channel 4 and Five produce PSB programmes in exchange for free access to the analogue airwaves - equivalent to a subsidy of 400m a year.

Obviously, once all of the UK is digital, there will, in effect, be no subsidy available to the commercial channels to encourage them to make PSB programmes.

This is why Ofcom is studying the issue now.

WHY NOT SIMPLY LET THE BBC GET ON WITH IT?

Ofcom believes that the BBC will become isolated if it is left alone to provide PSB. It says that only a range of public service offerings - from a range of different networks - will create quality and diversity.

Ofcom says: "If the BBC becomes a near monopoly provider of PSB, neither the BBC's content nor that of the wider broadcasting market is likely to contribute sufficiently to PSB purposes and characteristics."

WHAT DOES OFCOM PROPOSE FOR THE BBC?

The BBC should remain the "cornerstone" of PSB, fully funded by a licence fee until at least 2016.

It should provide more English regional programmes.

In order to stay financially healthy the government should let the BBC supplement its income with "limited subscription services".

WHAT DOES OFCOM PROPOSE FOR ITV1?

ITV1 should be allowed to slowly withdraw its regional non-news programming - the BBC should take up the slack from ITV - and focus instead on high-quality UK programming.

WHAT ABOUT CHANNEL 4?

Channel 4 remains a "vital force" in the world of PSB. It should remain "not for profit" and be allowed to develop alliances and ventures to support its aims.

In order to keep finances healthy, Ofcom says that some of the BBC's "income generating assets" be transferred to Channel 4.

AND WHAT ABOUT FIVE?

Five's role is "modest but important" says Ofcom. Its contribution to PSB is to invest more in original productions, it says.

HOW WILL THE COMMERCIAL CHANNELS PAY FOR PSB IN THE FUTURE?

Once the "analogue subsidy" has gone in 2012, Ofcom says there are three choices - increasing the licence fee, using a government grant similar to the one given to the World Service, or a tax of the turnover of UK broadcasters. Ofcom stresses that ultimately it is the decision for the government to make.

WHY NOT SIMPLY CREATE A POT OF MONEY FOR PSB THAT CHANNELS COULD ALL BID FOR?

This idea has been dubbed the "Arts Council of the Air" - to create a body which would give out money to help commerical broadcasters make PSB programmes.

Ofcom believes such an idea will result in too much bureaucracy and would not work when the different channels have different core values.

IS THAT ALL?

No. Perhaps the most radical plan is one to launch a new public service network, called a Public Service Publisher (PSP), across digital TV and new technologies such as broadband, mobile phones and personal video recorders.

The new network - which would cost about 300m a year to run and could launch by 2012 - could be bid for by any of the current broadcasters, or a consortium, with the exception of the BBC.

It would be funded by one of the three proposals outlined above.

ISN'T PSP JUST IDENTICAL TO THE BBC?

Ofcom doesn't think so. It says the new service would bring diversity and depth to PSB in the UK.

It would provide a "deliberately limited quantity of high quality content". Ofcom says PSP "would not be a TV channel in the traditional sense, nor would it publish books, magazines or newspapers".

ARE THESE PROPOSALS FINAL?

Not at all. Ofcom is now awaiting public feedback. Views must be sent to the watchdog by 24 November.


SEE ALSO:
BBC should 'sell off shows'
23 Aug 03  |  Entertainment
Ofcom plans 'public service TV'
30 Sep 04  |  Entertainment
BBC 'should sell radio archive'
16 Sep 04  |  Entertainment


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