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Ofcom calls for UK public service overhaul

UK media regulator Ofcom is recommending the UK government undertakes a “radical overhaul” of laws to ensure that public service media can compete with digital giants.

Dame Melanie Dawes

The recommendation comes as part of Ofcom’s recently concluded in-depth review of the future of public service media (PSM) in the UK, titled Small Screen: Big Debate statement.

Dame Melanie Dawes, chief executive at Ofcom, said the biggest shake-up to public service broadcasting in 20 years is needed to build a stronger system of PSM that can thrive in the digital age.

Ofcom wants to see legislation modernised for public service programming to survive in an online world and PSM broadened to create opportunities for new content makers.

During its review, Ofcom spoke to audiences of all ages and backgrounds across the UK and met with both domestic and international broadcasters, streaming services, academics and analysts.

Having received more than 100 responses, it said there was a consensus on two fundamental issues: the importance of PSM for UK viewers, and the urgent need to update the system to ensure its future sustainability.

With global competition intensifying, viewers are choosing content from a range of online providers and platforms.

This is forcing broadcasters to accelerate their digital plans to maintain strong links with audiences and Ofcom said the regulatory system that underpins them “also needs to be urgently updated.”

It has put forward various recommendations to the UK government, including bringing forward primary legislation to update availability and prominence rules to include digital platforms to ensure PSM is accessible on different platforms.

It also wants to see PSM providers forge more ambitious strategic partnerships to compete more effectively with global players and reach wider audiences, pointing to Channel 4 and Sky, who recently expanded their existing partnership to cover content, technology and innovation.

The UK government should also consider how to encourage new providers to help deliver PSM in future to target audiences who don’t connect with broadcasters on traditional TV platforms.

Economic incentives to broaden PSM provision should also be considered, to boost the amount of regional programming available using tools such as contestable funding or tax relief.

Updated legislation should also allow for complementary PSM providers to be added to the regulatory framework to maximise flexibility into the future, Ofcom said.

“Our research findings emphasise the special importance viewers place on high-quality, trusted and accurate news. It reveals a passion for soaps, drama and live sports, which bring us together, as well as programmes which reflect the diversity of the UK’s nations and regions. PSM is also central to the UK creative economy, with around £3bn (US$4.2bn) spent each year on new commissions across a broad range of genres,” Ofcom added.

Dawes said: “Our creative sector is the envy of the world, but public service media is facing a triple threat – from large global players, viewers turning towards online services, and increasing funding pressures. If we’re to preserve public service media and its outstanding content for future generations, change needs to happen – and fast.

“That’s why we’re recommending the biggest shake-up to public service broadcasting in 20 years. Our plan of action sets out how the industry, government and Ofcom can together build a stronger system of public service media that can thrive in the digital age.”

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