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Role and Contribution of Public Service Broadcasting on the 21st Century Landscape

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3495 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Critically analyse the role and contribution that

public service broadcasting is making to the 21st century landscape.

Public service broadcasting is defined as “any broadcasting regime with the ideal of giving priority to the collective needs of the general public rather than commercial interests, often framed as giving the public what it needs rather than what it wants. Public service broadcasters have been increasingly eroded by commercial pressure, and some argue that it is no longer a tenable model”, (Oxford Dictionary: of Media & Communication, 2016). Throughout this report I am going to be talking about the role and contribution that public service broadcasters are making to the 21st century broadcast landscape and also the direction in which they are currently headed.

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It’s important that public service broadcasters provide the viewers of their programmes with three services, these are to educate, inform and entertain, one programme that is a grand example of this would be the final episode of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. This aired on Sunday December 10th last year and was the most viewed programme that week according to BARB, (Barb, 2017).  Throughout the programme, viewers are educated on the dangers, e.g. when we are introduced to Lucy Quinn, who’s part of the British Antarctic Survey team, were also introduced to the wandering albatross.  We learn that the albatrosses in this area, over the past ten years, have been in decline.  We are also educated on their diet, Quinn tells us that a “chick should really have things like squid and fish”. Then Attenborough speaks and reality hits. He says “but these chicks are being fed something very different. The shot then cuts to a plastic bag, that one of the albatrosses have been forced to bring up.  Then we learn that this bird is one of the lucky ones and we then cut to a shot of a dead albatross who attempted to eat a plastic toothpick and subsequently died, this was due to the actions of humans.

This programme also does a grand job at informing the viewer, for example, when he introduces the show he says, “the oceans are under threat, now as never before in human history”.  (BBC iPlayer, 2017).  He then closes the episode by saying “we are at unique stage in our history, never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet… and never before have we had the power to do something about that, surely we have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. He then informs us that “the future of humanity and indeed all life on Earth, now depends on us.”. (BBC iPlayer, 2017).  With this being at the end of the show it is of high effect as it will hopefully resonate with the viewers and they’ll come to the realisation that what they’re doing is a problem, and that we all need to come together to put things right. (BBC iPlayer, 2017).  The programme is also very entertaining to watch thanks to the presenting of David Attenborough, the score of Hans Zimmer and the cinematography.

First of all, it is important to consider the fact that there are a number of services that are affecting public service broadcasters, these include but are not limited to Netflix and Amazon Prime.  In fact, in an Ofcom report published on the 18th July 2018 it was revealed that “the number of UK subscriptions to television streaming services such as Netflix has overtaken traditional pay television for the first time, marking a major shift in the UK’s viewing habits”, (Ofcom, 2018). Furthermore, the spending of public service broadcasters is down with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5’s combined expenditure on original UK-made programmes in 2017 of £2.5 billion, representing a record low, (Ofcom, 2018).  On the 11th July 2018 the BBC tweeted a picture comparing their production spending to that of Netflix’s. It said how they can both spend £97 million and whilst Netflix can only produce two seasons of The Crown which equates to twenty hours of content, The BBC are able to produce eighteen series such as Our Girl, Peaky Blinders and Poldark, and these together have over four times the hours of content that Netflix does at a total of eighty-five hours, (@bbcpress 2018). 

Furthermore, there are “risks to public service broadcasting, but satisfaction remains high”, (Ofcom 2018).  A survey was carried out by Ofcom and it was clear that “viewers confidence in public service broadcasting remains high”, and out of all the people who watch channels from public service broadcaster 75% of them said that they were satisfied.  What this means is that even though they are losing their audience due to audience fragmentation which is due to the effect of online broadcasters such as Netflix and even YouTube now.  “Earlier this year there were calls for UK broadcasters to collaborate to compete to match online competitors’ growing scale. This means having UK broadcasters come together in order to share ideas or pool resources. An example of this happening would be the joint venture by the BBC and ITV called ‘Britbox’ which has launched in the US and Canada.  This streaming service has reached over 250,000 subscribers in just under a year since it was launched’. This happened after the service doubled its number of hours so that it was offering 4,600 episodes of British programming, there are also plans to increase the amount of original and acquired programming by 50% over the next year. (Deadline, 2018). This will make it more of a direct competitor with services such as Netflix with the way in which it plans to add new shows as both will have original content and then also they both acquire content from elsewhere in order to broadcast it on their own platform. 

On March 8th this year there was a report published by Ofcom on public service broadcasting in the digital age, (Ofcom, 2018). Firstly, it is of high importance to ensure the health of public service broadcasters in the digital age, it’s clear that they are facing new challenges, but in the past, they’ve proved that they can respond to changes within the market, for example they launched both Freeview and Freesat in order to ensure that there would be universal availability of free-to-air multichannel television. This in turn meant that more people could watch the programmes that public service broadcasters were providing them.

Secondly, they’ve developed a more personal viewing experience, they’ve done this through obtaining personal data from viewers use of online services, by doing this they can see the types of programmes that people are watching and in turn they are able to recommend different programmes to you based upon what you have been watching, this is important to them as if you weren’t recommended various shows how long would it be before you went to somewhere such as Netflix, who do the same. Therefore, by recommending shows to their viewers that their algorithms believe the viewer will enjoy it will, in turn, heighten the chance of viewers watching more content from the public service broadcaster’s services instead of going to other places such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The surest way to make sure that public service broadcasters continue to thrive is by making distinctive UK content to the highest quality, it’s important to have content that reflects on people’s lives, people want to be able to relate to what they’re seeing.  Furthermore, when they were first starting up their “purpose was to make sure that the public had access to high quality television that was able to reflect the UK back to itself’, (Ofcom, Page 3, 2018). 

The use of public service broadcasters is currently on a decline, earlier this Barb released a report entitled ‘what will video measurement look like in 2022?’ (Barb 2018). Firstly, there’s expectations for there to be growth in terms of minutes of viewing per person per day, this is because 4G is improving and also  5G is set to launch soon, this will be even more powerful than it’s processor, taking this into consideration and the fact that phone screens are becoming of higher quality it is going to be a lot easier to watch videos on the go. However, TV sets are likely to stay as the primary source for watching longer content, but smartphones may become the default for short content.

Furthermore, there will be TV sets in an estimated ninety percent of homes in 2022. But the amount of traditional TV watched is set to fall over the next four years and there is research from Thinkbox’s report, The Video World in 2017’,  (Thinkbox, 2018). Within this report it says that ‘TV accounts for 71% of our video day.  The two pie charts below show that when it comes to the previous statement in the report of TV accounting for 71%, that around ¾ of that number is for Live TV.

The BBC and ITV both have very good track records when it comes to producing Drama series.  One example is the 2018 drama/political thriller by Jed Mercurio, Bodyguard.  The series gave the BBC their highest ratings for a drama in a decade to start off with there was “an initial audience of 6.8 million tuned in to BBC1 on Sunday 26th August for the first episode of the drama”… but all in all the total audience more than doubled when you took into account people watching on iPlayer, through time-shifted viewings and then through recording the programme.  Another statistic which strongly supports the fact that British people want shows that are truly British. In the sixteen to thirty-four-year-old demographic there was a total of 1.2 million viewers, the BBC claimed that this was the biggest number for this age group this year when it came to non-soap dramas.  (Waterson J, 2018).   Every week the BBC’s Bodyguard was the most watched programme according to BARB. It’s highest viewing was on Sunday 23rd September, the final episode of the series, it totalled 15.2 million when you add up viewing from all four screens, it works out as 14,335,200 people watching on a TV set, then 397,948 through a PC or laptop and then 306,658 on a tablet and lastly, a total of 160,942 people viewed the show’s finale through a smartphone, (BARB, 2018).   The number of people watching on devices other than a television is somewhat astonishing, it proves that people are watching more often, perhaps on a laptop whilst doing work, or they might watch the programme on a tablet or phone during their commute to and from work each day.

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One question that we must ask is “should market forces be allowed to dictate what we watch”. The answer quite simply put is no, but it is important to delve deeper, public service broadcasters have three responsibilities when it comes to their programming. They have to entertain, educate and inform their audiences. In fact, the BBC’s own website states their mission as “To enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’.  (Inside The BBC, n.d). A number of their programmes, including the previously mentioned Blue Planet do all three. Then others such as two of their biggest shows; Strictly Come Dancing and Bodyguard set out to entertain viewers.  In fact, in 2015 “The BBC argued the case for popular shows in its response to the government’s green paper on it’s future”. (BBC News, 2015).  The BBC has a number of news programmes, in fact, on Sunday 9th December, there was over five hours of news-based content, such as BBC Breakfast and BBC Weekend News which aired at multiple points throughout the day.  (BBC iPlayer, 2018). If we allowed to market forces to dictate what it is we watch then chances are programmes that are produced in order to educate and inform would mostly cease to exist, and with the fact that it’s the BBC’s duty to provide these services it’s unclear how this would affect the BBC’s agreement with The Government’.

In 2018 BARB, published a document called “The Viewing Report”.  (Shedd, E, 2018).   One thing that sit showed was “The Genre Rankings’. This is the trend in percentage share of audience between 2008 and 2017. To no-one’s surprise, entertainment had the highest share with 18.6%, with Drama’s 16.3% putting it into second place. Down the other end of the scale, music, arts, religious and education all had less than 1.0% of the audience share.  “In 2017, there were four unlikely characters who came together to influence our viewing habits; President Donald Trump and David Davis MP were two of those people. They helped the factual news genre, this includes documentaries, news & weather and current affairs, to reach a share of 29.3% which is more than a four-point increase since 2014. (BARB pg. 36, 2018).

 Another piece of data within this report that proves public broadcasters have a promising future in the United Kingdom is that they have the highest percentages in terms of the top ten broadcaster groups for the year, 2017.  BBC One is the highest at 21.8%, ITV, with 15.6% comes in at second, whilst BBC2 has a 5.8% audience share. All in all, The BBC has an audience share of 31.5%. ITV’s audience share is at 21.8%, then for Channel 4 there is a 10.2% audience share with Viacom (Channel 5 etc.) having 8.4 of the audience share. (BARB, pg. 37, 2018).   All in all, these four public service broadcasters had a total of just over 70% of audience share, proving just how popular the programming that these channels produce and how much variety that they have to attract such a large number of people.

Lastly, Goldsmiths: University of London published a report in 2015 on “the future of public service television in the UK in 21st century”, (Goldsmiths, 2015).  It’s set out in the 2003 communications act and it is also recognised by Ofcom that everything that the BBC produces as well as the programming of ITV and Channel’s 4 and 5 have to fulfil the commitments that are a part of their broadcast licences. (Ofcom, Section 264, 2003).   However, with the amount of programming being produced rising. Going back to a previous point of the public service broadcasters having just over 70% of the audience share, it does subsequently mean that there is a 30% share they don’t have.  The channels making up this percentage don’t have “none of these so-called positive public service obligations attached to the terms of the broadcast licences”. (Goldsmiths, pg.  91, 2015).  Key genres, which are often associated with public service broadcasting, e.g. news and original dramas are playing a part in the mix of the programming that these services e.g. Sky and Netflix are now offering.

To conclude, television is changing, in order to stop their current decline, it is vital that public service broadcasters continue to adapt to the 21st century landscape. With new services such as Disney+ soon to be coming into the landscape this will prove difficult as it will cause even more audience fragmentation.   All in all, they are still going really strong, especially in the UK, this is proving by the ratings of recent programmes such as The Bodyguard and Blue Plant II.  If they continue to do what they have always set out to do then they’ll have a place in the changing landscape.  Public service broadcasters are likely to decline, however, it is highly unlikely that they will die-out entirely, at-least in the foreseeable future.

Word Count:  2575.



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