'Three options' for future of public service TV

By James Welsh

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards has outlined the regulator's three options for the future of public service broadcasting in Britain.

In a speech delivered last night to the Royal Television Society, which came ahead of the release of detailed proposals next week, Richards said that there were only three paths to choose from to avoid the BBC becoming the sole provider of public service broadcasting on British television - an end that he suggested was unacceptable because, based on its recent consultation, the public want "plurality of provision" to be enshrined alongside a strong BBC.

Richards said: "Ofcom would not favour any mechanism that reduced the BBC's core programme and services budget. But... our research shows clearly that audiences are very open minded about what should happen to the licence fee switchover surplus from 2012 onwards."

He outlined three models for the future provision of public service television. The first, an evolutionary model, would see ITV1 "become a network of nations-based licences, or a single UK licence, with obligations at network level for UK origination, UK and international news, but probably nothing else", and Five focus on UK origination. Channel 4 would have "additional funding" and "an extended remit to innovate and provide distinctive public service content across platforms". A second model, the "refined BBC/Channel 4" plan, would see ITV1 and Five drop their public service broadcasting obligations - and analogue licences - with the licences either being auctioned or transferred to Channel 4 and the BBC "to enhance their public service propositions". Channel 3 licencees would have no public service benefits or obligations "but could compete for funding to provide nations and regions news, alongside others if they wished". The third option, a "refined competitive funding" model, would see additional funding for public service content "opened up to a wider pool of providers" - a pool that would include Channel 4, ITV1 licencees and Five.

"We are now coming to the time when people will need to begin to say on which side of a number of arguments they stand," said Richards.

"There are real choices to be made and I want to conclude with some clear pointers about where we believe the argument takes us.

"First, the BBC should remain the cornerstone of public service content, and its core programme and services budget should be secure.

"Second, audiences should have a choice of providers in most areas of public service content, which the market alone will not provide. To achieve this, replacement funding will be necessary by 2012.

"Third, Channel 4 should have a significant public service role in the digital age, building on its current contribution as a publicly owned not for profit institution. It needs an economic model and funding mechanism to support this as a pressing priority.

"Fourth, the provision of content for the nations - in particular dedicated news - remains an essential requirement for any future model.

"Fifth, institutional and competitive funding could both play important, complementary roles in the future model for public service content; we should keep the option open for the latter.

"Finally, between now and 2014, ITV1 and Five should retain important PSB roles but focused on UK origination and news and (for ITV1) the nations and regions. These are the audiences' priorities for meeting public service purposes."

He added that after 2014, ITV1 and Five would find that "the arguments for retaining their public service benefits and obligations are more evenly balanced".