Saturday 22 May 2021 8:50 am

Saturday Sitdown: Public media played key role during Covid, says STV boss

The UK’s public service broadcasters played a vital role during the Covid-19 pandemic and should be protected, the chief executive of STV has said.

In an interview with City A.M., Simon Pitts threw his weight behind traditional TV channels, insisting they were still relevant despite the rise of streaming heavyweights such as Netflix.

“I don’t know where we would be if we hadn’t had a really effective coming together of media to help to tell the story of Covid, both in terms of news but also public health information,” he said.

Pitts added that the purpose of public service broadcasting felt “more relevant than ever”.

It comes amid growing scrutiny over the role of public broadcasters, which include the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, as well as London-listed STV.

The government has launched a review into the future of the broadcasters, appointing a panel of top media veterans to advise on the issue.

The BBC in particular is facing a barrage of criticism over alleged bias and its licence fee funding model, especially as viewers increasingly shift towards on-demand services.

Pressure mounted on the corporation this week as culture secretary Oliver Dowden warned it could face further reform following revelations that executives covered up failings relating to Martin Bashir’s 1995 interview with Princess Diana.

Dowden has also warned that ministers were considering privatising Channel 4 as part of sweeping reforms of the sector.

Regulation

STV boss Pitts acknowledged that current broadcasting regulations, which date back to 2003, needed to be reformed for the modern age and said it was “legitimate” to have a debate about how the BBC was funded.

But in a staunch defence of public media, he said the last 12 months had highlighted why traditional TV channels should be protected.

“Anyone who doubted the enduring power and relevance of public service broadcasting, I don’t think does anymore post-Covid, especially given the role those broadcasters have played in bringing the nation together, in keeping people informed and entertained, not to mention their role in conveying those vital public health messages.”

Commercial broadcasters have suffered a torrid year as the outbreak of Covid battered advertising revenue, even as viewing numbers hit record highs.

But Pitts was optimistic about a rebound in advertising this summer as confidence returned and broadcasters benefitted from the delayed Euros football tournament.

Even so, STV is doubling down on its digital services and production capabilities in a bid to reduce its reliance on advertising revenue. The company is aiming to generate 50 per cent of its operating profit from outside traditional broadcasting by the end 2023.

Pitts also said his company planned to ramp up the number of shows it sells to platforms such as Netflix amid a scramble for content in the escalating streaming wars.

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