In an age of Netflix, Britain’s public broadcasters must step up to the challenge
The BBC has become a lightning rod for debate over the role of public service broadcasting and its role in our society. As the broadcaster prepares for its mid-term charter review and Channel 4 faces down the challenge of privatisation, we must re-evaluate how we look at the notion of maximum possible benefit to the public.
There are a range of different types of values from social and cultural to economic and industrial. At Cardiff University, we have developed these into a framework to judge the efficacy of our broadcasters.
The social value of a public service broadcaster such as the BBC is about providing equitable access to content in order to enable national conversations. The twin principles of universality and accessibility are cornerstones reflected in the 2003 Communications Act. But the rapid growth of choice provided by multi-channel broadcasters and streaming services and online video has challenged the relevance of a “something for everyone” approach. To survive this change, regulations need to be designed for an age of non-linear TV viewing.
Producing high-quality, original British content has significant cultural value. News, arts and music, education, religious and children’s programming featuring the lives and experiences of British audiences distinguishes public broadcasters from the wider marketplace, increasingly dominated by global media giants. In 2020, public service broadcasters produced 29,800 UK “originated” content, compared to just 571 hours on streaming on-demand services like Netflix. Funding cuts to subsidy schemes, such as the Young Audiences Content Fund, narrow the offerings available.
When we talk about economic value, we have traditionally focussed on “value for money” and whether public broadcasters damage fair market competition by crowding out commercial investment. Recent YouGov polling on the value of the BBC licence fee reveals public apprehension. Public broadcasters also create employment and investment in the creative industries. A KPMG study for the BBC, estimated that every £1 of BBC spending generated a further £1.63 of economic activity.
This is distinct from the industrial value of public broadcasters, which helps drive investment in infrastructure and skills. Independent production quotas and the Terms of Trade agreed between broadcasters and production companies have underwritten the global success of the UK’s independent production sector.
Channel 4’s mission to reflect “the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society” is part of what is known as representational value. But just half of UK audiences feel that public broadcasters accurately portray their own nation or region.
Most importantly, broadcasters have immense civic value in empowering audiences to participate in the democratic process. Despite much angst in Westminster about the political leanings of the BBC, Britain’s public service broadcasters are the most used and trusted sources of news. But these chronic issues of mistrust, perceptions of bias and younger audiences’ changing habits pose systemic challenges.
It is through this lens that we must examine the future of broadcasters in a changing media world. Policymakers have charged themselves with the challenge of evaluating the worth of media organisations like the BBC – but it cannot be done without looking at it in the round.
The research ‘What is the Public Value of Public Service Broadcasting?‘ was published by the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and carried out by Cardiff University. This piece includes contributions from Professor Stuart Allan, Cardiff University.