Most television critics write as if it’s business as usual. It really is not. The crisis in public service broadcasting (PSB) is deepening. ITV is shaking off its obligation to show arts, religious and current affairs programmes. Channel 4’s audience share has fallen below 10 per cent for the first time in 12 years, putting it under enormous pressure to go further downmarket. But the big crisis is at the BBC, which is using the little-watched BBC4 as a dumping ground for minority programmes, and which cannot be trusted to reform itself. This leaves only two possible saviours for PSB.
The first is Melvyn Bragg’s radical proposal that television licence money should be allocated to public service programmes on any channel rather than just handed to the BBC. The second saviour, and potentially the most exciting development in British broadcasting policy since the Annan report (which created Channel 4), is Ofcom. The early signs are not only that Ofcom might link renewal of the BBC’s charter to a real commitment to PSB, but that it is prepared to nail down clear definitions of what PSB actually means. Defining PSB as a handful of programme categories – science, history, arts, religion, current affairs and so on – leaves too many loopholes.
In November, Ofcom began its full year-long review of public service broadcasting. One of its central tasks is to spell out when such programmes should be available and on which channels. It is not enough to have Panorama and the Ten O’Clock News clinging to the edges of prime time, or for arts programmes to be banished to BBC4, or for an Arena documentary to go out at 11.45pm on a weekday night, as it did in December. PSB programmes should be available to a large number of licence-payers, on the two main television networks, before 10.30pm.
Furthermore, a minimum number of hours per week should be stipulated for PSB programmes, and these should be made available all through the year. On 25th October, BBC2’s controller Jane Root wrote to the Guardian about her "commitment to arts coverage." That week, BBC2 showed two arts programmes: The Big Read and a documentary about Kathleen Ferrier, first shown on BBC4, and repeated at 11.20pm on a Monday night. This was not unusual.
The hardest task for Ofcom will be to define the content of PSB. A number of simple keywords might…