Public service narrowcasting

Multi-channel television and the internet are killing public service broadcasting as we have known it. Instead, let's use the subsidy to turn Britain's remarkable creative and artistic talents into public service "narrowcasters"
February 28, 2009

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The Royal Television Society asked me to speak at their dinner on a chilly evening last April. The brief was: be provocative and tell us how to reform public service broadcasting. Taking them at their word, I proposed the privatisation of Radios 1 and 2 plus Channel 4 and the release of ITV and Five from their public service obligations. With this money, and a small "top slice" of the BBC's licence fee, we would fund new types of public service content on the internet and elsewhere. And, as a final idea, we'd help people to find that content by building a new public service search engine called Boggle, which in turn would fund even more new online content by arts and education organisations. I certainly convinced myself. But I had forgotten that most of my audience had their snouts in the existing public service trough. My reception was even frostier than the hostile weather outside.

But it wasn't a wind-up. The historic edifice of public service broadcasting is crumbling under the weight of such disruptive forces that it cannot and should not emerge unscathed. Instead, it needs redesigning. The commercial suppliers of most public service television—ITV, Channel 4 and Five—are suffering from a catastrophic downturn in advertising. But how much is cyclical and how much structural? Channel 4 announced that its model was broken two years ago, and has been seeking state (and preferably BBC) funds to bail it out. In January Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, suggested that Channel 4 and Five be merged. It was a none-too-subtle attempt to get Channel 4's hands off the BBC's licence fee. But it was also an implicit acknowledgement that Five, on its own, is not a viable business. ITV has its own crisis with revenues and share price in sharp decline. The earth is shifting under the BBC too, in part because even its successes—like the iPlayer—now undermine it. Will the BBC's licence fee, a tax on television ownership, become more unpopular as millions bypass the television, and download programmes to their laptops?

Another phenomenon undermining our public service media is that in the age of the internet anyone can make and distribute their own content. Until this decade the mighty broadcasters had three things that viewers did not: money, expertise and spectrum. Two of these—expertise and spectrum—are now available to any teenager with a webcam. Forget, for a moment, the amateur videos posted online (a few excellent but mostly rubbish). The real promise comes from organisations in the world of the arts, media, education, museums and so on, who can now create and distribute their own content. When Britain gets truly high speed broadband (a much more important issue than the future of Channel 4) the ubiquitous delivery of high-quality video will be revolutionary. When it happens should the billions of public money that we invest in public service content still be given only to two or three organisations? In a time of digital disruption is it credible that the BBC and Channel 4 should emerge little changed?

A related issue is the question of search. In the future the television schedule (if it still exists) may just be a relic for the over eighties. But how will the rest of us find the shows that we love? And how will society ensure that the public service element it has already paid for can find an audience? We don't yet realise how big a problem this will be. Ofcom, the media regulator, asked in a September 2008 review if the public had trouble finding programmes they wanted to watch. Most did not. But, in the future world of "YouTube-squared" they will. There is a danger that in the internet era we will lose the serendipity of the broadcast age: the way Auntie Beeb could guide us gently from soap to documentary to news. This guiding role was central to public service broadcasting's claim to raise the overall cultural level of the nation. But the argument depended on having a captive audience. The new online world is more like a New York deli, with rich but often bewildering choice.

What plans does the government have for public service content? We are about to hear a good deal about this. An interim report, Digital Britain, led by Stephen Carter, a former Downing Street insider inelegantly dubbed the "converged" minister, is being preceded by the latest Ofcom review of public service media. The full fruits of Carter's efforts will come out in the summer. My fear is that the reports will worry too much about existing institutions and not enough about new opportunities for public service content—or public service narrowcasting, if you prefer.


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There's enormous potential for a glorious new era of public service content. Indeed, it has already begun. Let me give some examples. Tate Media is part of the Tate Gallery. It is run by techno-visionary Will Gompertz, a man who combines the long hair and casual dress of the art world with military directness. Gompertz acknowledges that the Tate's remit is "to increase people's knowledge and understanding of art." But might it be possible to do that without going to a building? Of course. With funding from BP, Bloomberg, the Arts Council of England and Channel 4, Tate Media now commissions and distributes its own content, just as if it were a small television station or website. They produce documentaries, like one about the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles (later picked up by ITV's South Bank Show, though it would never have commissioned such a rarefied piece itself).

Gomphertz puts it this way: "This isn't just a museum, it's a content business, with art as its theme." Tate Media produces monthly videos which it distributes on its own website, but also through other galleries, on YouTube and BBC iPlayer. And because the Tate owns the rights, this stuff is free. We, the public, have access to it, in perpetuity. Elsewhere, the Royal Opera House and now the National Theatre are streaming their productions to cinemas (see Performance notes), and the English National Opera gets its video-literate directors to make companion films to the operas that are distributed via its website. Leaders of the arts world are enthused, and have just written a manifesto, aimed at Ofcom, that says: "The advent of broadband provides a once in a generation opportunity to massively expand public access to culture and the arts."

The National Theatre, the Tate and the opera houses are, of course, major international arts institutions. At the other end of the scale is Philosophy Bites (, an audio podcast of interviews with philosophers. It's the brainchild of a BBC World Service employee, David Edmunds and a philosophy tutor at the Open University, Nigel Warburton. Every week they interview a well-known philosopher for ten minutes and put the result on the web. People download it and listen to it on their iPods. So far they are nudging 3m downloads, and have been as high as number seven in the top ten audio downloads on iTunes. They are more popular than traditional offerings from the BBC, where Edmunds says that he wouldn't get something so specialist commissioned. In principle, he supports the idea of greater funding for public service content: "If there was a public service fund that we could tap into we would be able to do a lot more."

One more example comes from Kingscrosstv ( described as "a local internet TV station for London's most exciting neighbourhood." It was set up by William Perrin, a longtime resident and self-described "community organiser," as a spin off from a website for local residents. Perrin said that he saw it as a challenge: "a proof of concept to see if you could set up a TV station, on the internet, with virtually zero budget. Turns out, yes, you can." And FACT, an art organisation in Liverpool, along with Watershed, a similar outfit in Bristol, are redefining cinema with their pioneering online content. Take a look. All are examples of new content that could be hugely successful.


The existing public service broadcasters (PSBs) lack many key attributes of the new world. The BBC and Channel 4 are essentially national organisations. Online content is often genuinely local, like William Perrin's amateur television station in Kings Cross. Moreover, the PSBs are linear: they make programmes and online content, and push them at us, mostly in a manner and at a time of their choosing. Online, content is more flexible, with real interactivity—you engage when you feel like it, stop and start at will and often contribute your own pennyworth too. Then there's the "broad" in broadcast. The BBC and ITV stand or fall by whether they can attract mass audiences. Online content can be more focused and targeted. Tate Media attracts 1m viewers to an art documentary because they specifically want to learn about art. Finally, the PSBs are highly centralised—shamefully no more than ten people ultimately decide what we watch on their channels. Of course we value the BBC's online offerings and some of Channel 4's attempts to support small new media producers. But should their billions flow through just two organisations? What we need and can now have is some genuine plurality.

I am not arguing for the dismantling of the BBC and Channel 4. They should continue to do what they do best—producing programming of high production value with mass appeal. But we need to find a way of broadening the public service content franchise. If it is a choice of propping Channel 4 up with public money or diverting these funds to new public service suppliers, we should be doing the latter. As for the troubled Channel 4, straight privatisation would not be possible at the moment—but quasi-privatisation, such as a merger with Five, remains a serious proposition.

There may be little political will to redraw the public service map completely. But let's at least find a new way of funding innovative content. Here is how I would make a start.

The BBC's trustees are the guardians of the licence fee on behalf of us, the licence fee payers. Thus far, in their short life, they have merely concerned themselves with the BBC itself, saying yes or no to the management's expansionist proposals. Now they need to become proactive, leading not following the debate about the purposes of the licence fee. And they should set up a new public service content fund. Money for this venture would be taken from the annual surplus of BBC Worldwide (about £120m) and from that part of the licence fee dedicated to digital switchover, worth an annual £130m after 2012. The chairman of the trustees, Michael Lyons, has been vociferous in arguing that this is the BBC's money and should not be used, for example, for bailing out Channel 4. Sir Michael, you can keep it, but you should use it for the public benefit by spreading the money more widely.

This is not an entirely new idea. People have talked for years of an Arts Council for the airwaves. But this would have nothing to do with the airwaves. It's about producing a new generation of content on the internet. The total sum (£250m) would be dispensed by the trustees, to arts and educational organisations or other viable groups outside the BBC. It could even be given to non-PSBs—no new bureaucracies, no red tape—a system that would be simplicity itself.

There is always the knotty issue of defining what is and is not public service. But all that matters here is that the BBC trustees can demonstrate that it informs and educates. As to the question of finding the content—its searchability—the BBC as a trusted aggregator should be charged with helping to promote it. But Google, the world's pre-eminent search engine, should also be enlisted to optimise the search for content of demonstrable public value. There are even interesting models—like the website Stumbleupon—which can help to bring back the serendipity that might be lost. In time there would be valuable advertising revenues to be harvested from this PSB network which could flow to the contributing producers.

One final question. If organisations such as Tate Media and Philosophy Bites are already managing to produce their own content, why the need for any more funding? The answer is that they are just two examples of the extraordinary wealth of programmes that could be made and producers who could deliver them, given the chance. The opportunity exists for a step change in the form and content of public service output that hasn't been seen since 1982, when Channel 4 sparked a creative revolution against the complacency of the BBC and ITV. And for those of us who think it is a proper purpose of government to direct resources to video and audio content of public merit, it is time to achieve a much greater diversity. The advent of digital production and distribution presents the opportunity. We must not squander it by obsessing about the media institutions of the last century.