The Communications and Digital Committee warns that public service broadcasters (PSBs) need to be better supported to ensure that they can continue to produce high-quality drama and documentaries which reflect and examine UK culture. In return, the broadcasters need to adapt to ensure that they serve and reflect all audiences.
In its report 'Public service broadcasting: as vital as ever' the committee underscores that public service broadcasting remains essential to the UK media and losing it would leave UK society and democracy worse off. PSBs face unprecedented competition from Netflix, Amazon Prime and other subscription video on demand services (SVODs) whose production budgets of often dwarf those of PSBs.
By contrast with SVODs, the report highlights that PSBs are failing to appeal to certain groups, including 16–34-year-olds. Younger generations are not growing up with PSBs as previous generations did, which risks undermining support for the licence fee. The committee also heard concerning evidence the PSBs are failing to appeal to BAME viewers and that they were not as successful as SVODs in championing BAME representation behind the camera and in the creative process, especially at the BBC.
The committee raises further concerns about the integrity of the licence fee as the guarantor of the BBC’s financial independence. It has been undermined by a succession of settlements which were carried out behind closed doors. The BBC should not have been offered, or accepted, responsibility for over-75s’ licences. A new, independent and transparent process for setting the licence fee is necessary. The report recommends the establishment of a new body called the BBC Funding Commission to help set the licence fee.
The committee believes that PSBs are as vital as ever and make recommendations to ensure they can thrive in the face of competition from SVODs. These include:
- Listed sports events: The committee recommends a modest increase in the number of listed sports events, which must be shown free to air. This could include The Ashes and The Open Golf Championship.
- TV production: The UK production sector is a national success story, but it is at risk of reaching full capacity and overheating. The committee recommends changes to High-End TV tax relief and the Apprenticeship Levy, as well as a review of the Terms of Trade between PSBs and independent producers to determine whether they should still apply to larger companies.
- Regulation and funding: The Government should support PSBs in the new technological environment, and think very carefully before imposing any further regulatory or financial burdens on them. The committee does not support a levy on SVODs at this time.
The chairman of the committee, Lord Gilbert of Panteg, said:
"For many people, especially young people, watching TV in real-time is now the exception rather than the norm. While the arrival of SVODs has created exciting opportunities for the creative sector and for audiences, particularly in drama, we are concerned by the unpredictability of future developments. PSBs provide a stable investment platform for a diverse range of content, made for UK audiences, and freely available on a reliable over the air platform.
"At a time of polarisation, public service broadcasters play a role in unifying the country through shared experiences. Our recommendations will ensure that public service broadcasters are able to continue to serve us and afford to make world-class programmes. If we fail to support our public service broadcasters, audiences would miss them when they're gone."