Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Wednesday, 24 June 2009 11:49 UK

What role for TV in wired world?

Children watching TV
Who will pay for TV content such as children's programmes?

Will we need public service broadcasting in the wired world? Bill Thompson has his doubts.

Much of the debate that followed last week's publication of the Digital Britain report has focused on the proposal to take some of the income from the TV licence and make it available to fund universal broadband access, with a suggestion that once this has been accomplished £130m a year could be used to support local news services and perhaps even children's programming provided by people other than the BBC.

Within the BBC there is a strong feeling that this would be a very bad idea because the corporation's resilience comes in part from having a guaranteed source of funding that does not rely on politically-motivated decisions of the government of the day.

The fear is that once the licence fee is shared there will be nothing to stop it being carved up to meet short-term policy objectives.

Others share this view. The Guardian's Polly Toynbee is vehemently opposed to what she calls 'deliberately breaching the unique status of the BBC' and asks if the destruction of the BBC is 'really going to be this Labour government's legacy?'

The final decision on the TV license is yet to be made, but the argument about funding the BBC is only one aspect of a much larger debate about public service broadcasting in the UK and how we pay for television content that is designed to meet specific social and cultural objectives, such as news, education and children's programming.

ITV, Channel 4 and Five all have obligations to provide public service content, and it is hard to see how these commercial broadcasters can meet them as television advertising revenue falls and competition from digital channels and online sources continues to increase.

The scale of the problem is enormous, and was highlighted in a recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) commissioned by the entertainment union BECTU and the National Union of Journalists, both of whom have many members working in broadcasting.

Genuine crisis

'Mind the Funding Gap' looks at the impact of the switch to digital broadcasting on the main UK channels and estimates that it will leave the commercial public service broadcasters with a funding gap of between £145 and £235 million, although the calculations are based on many assumptions about how much the analogue television spectrum is worth compared to the lower value of a digitally-broadcast channel and are rather more indicative than accurate.

Even if the numbers are uncertain, there is clearly a massive loss of subsidy that, along with the current reduction in advertising income, has created a genuine crisis in public service broadcasting.

What, then, should be done about it?

Earlier this week I attended a meeting organised by the FEU, the Federation of Entertainment Unions, to discuss 'New Forms of Funding for Public Service Broadcasting', and heard from John Smith of the Musicians' Union, Luke Crawley from the media and entertainment union BECTU and the London Business School's Professor Paddy Barwise.

The debate covered a range of topics but focused on a proposal in 'Mind the Funding Gap' to pay for public service programmes by imposing a one per cent on the turnover of pay television and mobile phone companies, raising around £280m a year.

The argument is a simple one. If a levy on telephone use, as proposed in the Digital Britain report, can be used to pay for next generation broadband, taxing old services to pay for new, why not have a levy on pay television services and mobile phone companies to ensure that providers of public service broadcasting have the same level of public funding in a digital world as they do in the analogue one?

This is such a broken idea that it is difficult to know where to begin to unwind it.

Old-style content

Bill Thompson
The age of television is ending, just as the age of printed textbooks and user manuals is ending, as the age of the hand loom and the wheelwright and the scribe ended before them
Bill Thompson
Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is that an always-on digital world will be so similar to the old analogue one that the passive consumption of scheduled television programming will be the only way most people will want to spend their time and so vast amounts of public money must be spent to ensure that it continues to be available.

Instead of investing in innovation and taking advantage of the capabilities that high speed networks offer, finding ways to deliver entertainment and news and education to people wherever they are, with interactivity and options for engagement built in, the old style content providers want to tax network services so they can continue to provide old style content.

They want to keep us all in a world where vast numbers of people spend most of their precious leisure time watching a flat-screen television on which the limits of interactivity are set by an electronic programming guide and, if you're very lucky, a red button that lets you vote on your most-disliked Big Brother housemate.

Of course the unions want to protect the jobs of their members, and they cannot be criticised for this, but sometimes bad things happen to good people. Many fine writers, including my partner, are suffering because book publishing is going through enormous turmoil, but there is no subsidy on offer to them.

In broadcasting actors are out of work while directors and production crews see budgets cut and funding dry up, and journalists are living with uncertainty.

This is happening because the age of television is ending, just as the age of printed textbooks and user manuals is ending, as the age of the hand loom and the wheelwright and the scribe ended before them. It is a hard change to live through, and those who are only skilled to work in the world of television will inevitably fear it, just as print-only journalists fear the online future.

But this is not a reason to distort the growth of online services in order to give television a few more years.

It is an argument for reskilling, for offering funding to innovative services, for building on the ideas of projects like Martin Bright's 'New Deal of the Mind' that are trying to find ways to support and sustain those whose career prospects have been affected by the growth of the internet.

When I was young there was a great children's TV show called 'Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead?', which encouraged viewers to be active and not simply passive viewers of packaged content.

I think it's time that those involved in television production were asked: Why Don't You Stop Banging on About Public Service Broadcasting and Go and Make Something Less Boring Instead?


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.



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