Media Forum: Is a public-service fund viable?

Public-service publisher proposals are back on media's agenda.

The closer we get to analogue switch-off in the UK, the more eccentric our TV industry seems. Nowhere else in the developed world (unless you include China) is the medium so dominated, both culturally and economically, by the State broadcaster. And this is not just any state broadcaster but a state broadcaster devoid of commercial breaks.

The only mainstream broadcaster attempting to pursue anything remotely like a public-service agenda, Channel 4, does so on the back of exploitation shows such as Big Brother that are as trashy as anything you'll find in the backwaters of the digital universe - and even here, the game will soon be up.

Legal skirmishes surrounding the filming of Wife Swap (an incident led to accusations by one of the participants that she had been sexually assaulted) are, in the eyes of many observers, the beginning of the end for exploitation TV. The ambulance-chasing lawyers that hovered on the fringes of the last series of Big Brother will be out in force next year, you can be sure of it.

Channel 4 has argued on many occasions in the past that, come analogue switch-off, it will face a funding shortfall if it continues to keep faith with its remit ("the provision of a wide variety of high quality and diverse programming that is innovative, creative, educational, distinctive in character and appeals to culturally diverse audiences").

Ofcom's plans to paper over widening cracks in the UK's broadcast economy are centred around its notion of a "public-service publisher" - a notion that has been derided many times in the past but which, following a Royal Television Society speech last week by Ofcom's deputy chairman, Philip Graf, is back on the agenda once more.

The plan is to create a pot in excess of £300 million, funded by the public purse - and commercial broadcasters would apply for hand-outs to produce programmes that, in the digital TV economy, they just couldn't afford to make. Should advertisers welcome this?

Absolutely, Neil Jones, the managing director of Carat, argues. He says: "It's true that it might be a worry if the money was spent on esoteric stuff but I can't see that ever happening. And I believe commercial broadcasters' worries about their ability to fund a quality schedule in the future are valid, especially in the case of Channel 4. This has to be seen in the context of a strong BBC - and, after all, the BBC poached its current director-general, Mark Thompson, from Channel 4, didn't it?"

But Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, confesses to a sense of deja vu where this debate is concerned.

He comments: "My feeling in the past was that (public-service publisher) proposals had fundamental flaws and people right across the industry, not least broadcasters, were not slow in saying so. But it's interesting that this has resurfaced and that's a testament to the fact that its sponsor is so powerful and his star in the ascendancy." Wootton is referring to the scheme's most enthusiastic long-term proponent, Ed Richards, the Ofcom chief operating officer who is widely tipped to take the chief executive's job in succession to the now-departed Stephen Carter.

He adds, though, that when we're experiencing market uncertainty, as we are currently, it's perhaps not the best time to be looking at rather radical proposals such as this.

However, Chris Locke, the UK group trading director of Starcom UK, takes a more direct approach. The BBC, he states, is continuing to take advantage of the fact that it is inadequately supervised, and is abusing its freedom to act in a commercial manner. The quid pro quo should be some form of compensatory cash for the commercial sector.

The money could be used to make programmes targeting 16- to 24-year-olds - an age group commercial broadcasters struggle to attract. He explains: "Get them now, and they'll still be there as adults in 2012 when analogue dies. Ditto kids. For instance, give them lots of information-based, educational programming on issues like obesity, delivered in a really engaging way."

But Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media, can't see it. He concludes: "The situation as regards the level of the licence fee is already far from ideal. I couldn't approve of attempts to derive more money (by direct or indirect taxation). It would also distract people from what should be happening in terms of keeping a distinction between what the BBC is there to do and the role of other broadcasters."

YES - Neil Jones, managing director, Carat

"Anything that creates funds that can be invested in programming has to be a good thing. And we only need to look at what has happened at ITV over the past 12 months to see that it's not easy to invest wisely in programming."

MAYBE - Bob Wootton, director of media and advertising, ISBA

"It'll be interesting to see how far the idea has evolved. One thing we do know is that market conditions have changed. The market has flattened and advertiser attitudes towards adspend are more brutal."

YES - Chris Locke, UK group trading director, Starcom UK

"For commercial broadcasters, the opportunity to use that most potent of routes, 'other people's money', to deliver content they wouldn't otherwise be able to make, can only be good for them and viewers."

NO - Phil Georgiadis, chief executive, Walker Media

"I believe in the free market and to me this would just muddy the waters. The likelihood is that it would be abused and would let the BBC further off the hook as regards producing the sort of content it should be producing."

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