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Ofcom publishes a review of “Public Service Broadcasting in the Internet Age”

15 July 2015

On 2 July 2015, Ofcom published its third review (the Review) of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB). The Review focusses on the performance of Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) and highlights certain opportunities and threats to PSB arising out of the changing technological landscape and prevalence of in internet use by the public.   

The position of PSB in the internet age has been the subject of much discussion in recent months. In March this year, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published a Consultation Paper evaluating the relationship between PSBs and distribution platforms, and considering potential options regarding deregulation. The outcome of the consultation is expected later this year.

The principle of Public Service Broadcasting

The key principle of PSB is the provision of high quality TV programmes for the public benefit, dealing with a wide range of subjects, and catering for as many different audiences as possible. PSB is provided across the UK by a number of key institutions: the BBC, Channel 4 Corporation, the Channel 3 licensees (ITV, STV and UTV) and Channel 5.

Changing landscape

Since Ofcom’s last PSB review in 2009, the rapid acceleration of online TV content has changed the backdrop of the PSB market considerably. The Review sets out numerous facts and figures to this end, for example the fact that today, only 50% of 16-24s’ audio-visual consumption and 61% of 25-34s’ is through live television. 

The increasing importance of on-demand viewing for the younger population may indicate a more widespread movement in the ways in which people find and access content, and there is evidence that over-35s are also changing their habits (eg through the take-up of connected devices, and the increasing presence of internet TVs).

Ofcom identify key trends that will shape the PSB landscape over the next 5-10 years, an important factor being that superfast broadband availability will rise to 95% by 2017.

Threats and Opportunities

Ofcom’s research suggests that the PSB system has been broadly working, and audience satisfaction has increased. However, the Review sets out a number of areas where the PSB system does not appear to be performing in line with Parliament’s intentions, for example the fact that viewing hours to TV news by people aged 16-34 dropped by 29% between 2008 and 2014, and that it is widely held that PSB content fails to adequately reflect the diversity of the UK in its output (such as in relation to ethnicity, age and gender, and disability).

Total levels of investment in new UK-originated content by PSBs fell by over £400m between 2008 and 2014.  Further, if fragmentation of the PSB market makes TV advertising less attractive, PSB revenues could fall considerably.

However, Ofcom notes that the changing landscape offers exciting opportunities for PSBs to improve delivery of content and engage with audiences in more innovative and targeted ways.  PSBs will need freedom to continue to innovate (eg by supplying short-form video or online-first content), but the strength of the brands of the PSBs mean that they are well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities to reach viewers in new ways. 

PSBs have adapted in order to reallocate the focus of some of their investment to meet changing consumption habits of viewers, such as the development of online content available on iPlayer, ITV player, Demand 5, and All 4.


The Review sets out numerous issues for Parliament and broadcasters alike to consider. Clearly, if there is a greater acceleration away from linear viewing, further consideration would be required as to whether Parliament’s intentions for PSB remain achievable.

However, the value of PSB content remains high; in parallel to broader regulatory issues in the area, there is significant room for further innovation in the marketplace in order for PSBs to adapt to the trends identified in the Review.

This article was written by George Willis.