This article explores how our viewing habits are changing the landscape for public service broadcasting and what this might mean for audiences in Northern Ireland.
More than half of households in Northern Ireland (56%) now have a subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service from companies such as Netflix, Amazon and Now TV, according to figures published by Ofcom in 2020. Due to the way in which the SVOD market operates, its rise in popularity has simultaneously amplified and reduced some of the traditional reasons for publicly-funded interventions such as the BBC and the regulation of the television and radio markets by Ofcom.
Although ‘broadcasting and other media’ is a reserved matter, a Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2015 by the devolved administrations, the BBC and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), agreed a new process for the BBC Charter Renewal. The BBC’s Charter is due for its first mid-term review in 2022.
The devolved administrations and public service broadcasting
In March 2021, the Welsh Parliament debated the findings from the Welsh Language and Communications Committee report Exploring the devolution of broadcasting: How can Wales get the media it needs?. The Committee called for further powers over broadcasting to be devolved to Wales, including a formal role in the setting of the licence fee and responsibility for the Welsh language broadcaster S4C.
The last review of public service broadcasting in Northern Ireland was held by the former Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) in 2008. It concluded:
- Northern Ireland audiences might be better reflected with new governance and regulatory structures for public service broadcasting;
- The BBC could be better scrutinised and held to account by the Assembly and its committees;
- Northern Ireland could be more fully represented in network-wide programming; and
- The BBC had invested in new production centres in England, Scotland and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland.
New governance and regulatory structures
Both Scotland and Wales currently have representation on the Ofcom Board. The Board Member for Wales was appointed in 2019, following amendments to the Wales Act in 2017. The appointment of the Board Member for Scotland followed amendments to the Scotland Act in 2016, after recommendations from the Smith Commission. The Board Member for Scotland has also taken on responsibility for representing Northern Ireland since 2018, due to the absence of Northern Ireland Ministers at that time.
New Board members representing Northern Ireland’s interests are soon to be appointed to the Boards of Ofcom and the BBC. These appointments result from the passing of the Digital Economy Act in 2017 and the last BBC Charter Renewal process, which scrapped the former BBC Trust and led to the creation of a new BBC Board, with representatives from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Spring 2021, the former Economy Minister Diane Dodds wrote to the Communities Committee to inform Members of plans to appoint an Ofcom Board Member for Northern Ireland.
BBC Charter Renewal
In 2022, a mid-term review of the BBC’s charter will be led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Although ‘broadcasting and other media’ is a reserved matter here, in 2015 the UK Government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with each of the devolved administrations and the BBC, agreeing a new process for the BBC Charter Renewal. The MoU for NI included, among other things, that:
- DCMS will consult with the Northern Ireland (NI) Executive on the draft terms of the BBC Charter Review, in advance of its publication;
- The NI Executive will present the final terms of reference for the BBC Charter Review to the NI Assembly; and
- The NI Executive will present the draft Charter and Framework agreement to the NI Assembly and if the Assembly deems it appropriate, schedule a take note debate on its content.
Why do we have public service broadcasting?
Broadcasting is an industry with many special characteristics and there are a number of reasons why a completely unregulated market may lead to market failures. Intervention in public service broadcasting has traditionally been the solution to these failures. Changing technology may eliminate some of these reasons for intervention, but some may remain and, indeed, new ones may emerge…
The text box, below, describes some examples of the traditional reasons why there has been public sector intervention in the provision of television and radio.
Asking viewers to pay to view or seeking advertisers to fund airtime, could lead to a situation where commercially driven broadcasters are more likely to only produce programmes that attract large audiences and increase advertising revenue. Then, programmes such as impartially reported news or about topics that represent a small section of society, are less likely to be broadcast.
Media content, such as television, has the capacity to restrict or expand people’s knowledge, experience and imagination. Without regulation and quality standards, broadcasters may choose not to supply content that encourages these outcomes. Also consumers may not initially see the benefit of investing in this type of programming, as often the benefits only become apparent after viewing.
Fully informed consumers
Markets do not tend to do well where information is being sold, because consumers don’t know what they are buying, before they have experienced it. However, once they have experienced it, they no longer need to buy it.
Where the wider social costs of broadcast media are not levied on the broadcaster, the market tends to provide more media with negative externalities than is socially optimal. Examples might include screen violence or offensive language.
Economies of scale
The making and broadcasting of television programmes has exceptionally high fixed costs and very low marginal costs – it costs no more to make a programme available to extra people (within range of a given transmitter system). This economy of scale makes it difficult for new firms to enter the broadcasting market and therefore results in a highly ‘concentrated’ industry where a high percentage of total programming output is accounted for by a few providers.
Before streaming programmes on the internet was possible, there was a technical limit on the number of television services able to be provided by the broadcasting industry. This limited competition and created a natural monopoly environment.
These traditional market failures led to the rationale for the BBC. Also, Ofcom regulates broadcasters such as ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. They all have to adhere to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, covering standards in programmes, sponsorship, product placement in television programmes, fairness and privacy, in return for their being licensed to broadcast.
How has technology solved some of the traditional market failures in the broadcast industry?
Ofcom is currently completing a review of public service broadcasting in the UK, called Small Screen Big Debate. According to Ofcom, ‘this review is exploring how public service media of all kinds, both broadcast and online, could be delivered and funded to reflect audiences’ changing habits and expectations’. Recommendations from its Small Screen Big Debate consultation are to be presented to the UK Government in the summer of 2021. Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland’s views are summarised below.
Changing name from broadcasting to media
Ofcom’s first suggestion is a name change, from Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) to Public Service Media (PSM). Recent Ofcom evidence demonstrates that audiences are moving away from watching scheduled content broadcast at a set time, on a TV set.
Broadcast viewing was down by an average of 49 minutes between 2012-2018 for all adults (a drop of 20%), and down by 80 minutes for 16-24s in the same period (a drop of 51%).
Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland (ACNI) agreed and noted that stable funding as well as ‘a fair balance of terms with the global online platforms’ would be required for this to work. What this means is agreement with providers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to ensure public service media is easily found on their platforms and attributed to the publicly-funded organisations that produced the content.
Does publicly-funded content still matter?
The ways in which we consume media may be changing, but in alignment with a House of Lords Inquiry held in 2019, Ofcom argues that the need for publicly-funded content still matters. This is primarily because it is the type of content commercially focused providers do not deliver. The remit for public service broadcasting can be summarised as;
- Impartial content such as news and current affairs;
- Content that reflects the diversity of the UK, no matter how small the audience;
- Shared experiences through ‘event’ television such as sport, landmark drama and documentary series and live entertainment.
- A breadth of content for a range of audience access needs; and
- Innovation and training for the development of the creative economy.
Traditionally, for commercial broadcasters, large audience numbers watching the same programme, at the same time, were key to economic success. This allowed channels to charge more for advertising spaces. This market force can result in commissioners ignoring the needs of smaller, niche audiences. This is why public service broadcasters are expected to provide a breadth of content for a range of different audience needs. However, with SVOD services, a different scenario is emerging. According to the 2019 House of Lords Inquiry:
The subscription model incentivises SVODs to produce content which reaches a range of audiences. This is because their success depends on building a catalogue of programmes which – as a whole – appeals to the widest range of potential subscribers, rather than judging success on the size of the audience for a given programme. For this reason, they can take creative risks on individual programmes. They have also made effective use of personalisation.
The challenges of providing media for all have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Social and geographical divides emerged when attempting to provide education online. As we move from PSB to PSM, researchers have highlighted that PSM providers must serve those audiences who lack the means to access the internet, either due to geography, cost or disability.
Reflect the lives of people across all parts of NI and serve their distinct needs
The distinct content needs of audiences in NI should reflect that this jurisdiction has its own unique schooling system, a health service that incorporates social care and a public service broadcasting ecology that includes broadcasters based in the Republic of Ireland.
Both RTÉ and TG4 are available to NI audiences on Freeview, as an outworking of the Belfast Agreement/Good Friday Agreement 1998. The importance of PSB’s ability to provide local updates during the COVID-19 pandemic was also highlighted by Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for NI, noting:
…the capacity to report to and about the different Nations of the UK during the COVID-19 pandemic has been invaluable, right down to the provision of briefings by the NI Executive, signed in both British and Irish Sign Language. Without this locally relevant reporting NI audiences would simply not have been adequately informed about the most major issues, including public health advice. Meanwhile the provision of educational content relevant to local curricula has delivered unique value to students in home school, just as it has for their counterparts in other parts of the UK.
Accurately and authentically portray Northern Ireland
Ofcom’s Advisory Committe for NI recommended that local audiences want accurate portrayals of life in NI to be shown more frequently across the UK. Also, NI audiences have said that they want to see different ways of life around the UK on their screens.
More quotas, particularly for the BBC
According to Ofcom, quotas have increased production levels here as well as developing talent locally. However, similar to findings of the former Culture, Arts and Leisure (CAL) Committee in 2008, the Ofcom Advisory Committee for NI noted in 2021 that NI’s share of network commissioning spend for public service broadcasting is not in proportion to NI’s share of the UK population. The Ofcom Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland also noted that commissioning seemed to be retreating to centres in GB, following COVID-19 restrictions. The House of Lords Inquiry in 2019, highlighted a perceived lack of diversity both in BBC teams and its viewers, particularly from ethnic minorities. A recommendation for quotas and monitoring is required, as the data is currently lacking to definitively prove this.
Plurality and a unique PSB ecology
Plurality of news has recently been highlighted in an inquiry in the Welsh Parliament. In Northern Ireland, audiences benefit from a range of network and local providers, including RTÉ and TG4. As PSB transitions to PSM, consideration of the difficulty of accessing RTÉ and TG4’s online players may need consideration as audiences based here can’t currently gain access.
Gather a wide view from all corners of society
ACNI suggested that Ofcom should look outside of viewers and industry and gather perspectives from arts and culture as well as education, sport and the third sector.
Despite the MoU and the Digital Economy Act 2017, many of the observations made by Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland echo those from the former CAL Committee’s findings in 2008. As the mid-term review of the BBC Charter approaches and our viewing habits continue to change, the new BBC and Ofcom Board appointees for Northern Ireland certainly appear to have much to discuss.
 Ofcom (the Office of Communications) has a statutory duty to represent the interests of citizens and consumers by promoting competition and protecting the public from harmful or offensive material. It does this by regulating the TV, radio and video on demand sectors, as well as fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.