Media: A moment with Marquis

Imagine you are sat at home for a week watching television. On Monday you only get programmes from the 50s, including the Queen's coronation in flickering black and white. On Tuesday, you progress to the 60s, Wednesday the 70s and so on until Saturday when you are bang up to date with 2004 programmes. (You can have the Sunday off to recover.)

What would strike you about how television has changed? Better quality pictures, certainly. More choice. And the irreversible evolution (dumbing-down, some call it) from patronising and preachy to palatable and populist.

What will also be revealed is the slow death of public-service broadcasting (PSB). We just don't want our telly to be that way any more.

How astonishing, then, to see Ofcom proposing more public- service broadcasting - non-advertiser-funded competition for the BBC in the shape of a new public service "publisher" (PSP) armed with a £300 million budget.

Are you 'aving a laugh, Stephen Carter? It seems not. Ofcom is responding not to public demand but to Parliament's request for Ofcom to explore ways that PSB can be "maintained and strengthened".

Oh well, that would explain it then.

It isn't Ofcom that has gone batty, it's the politicians. Indeed, Ofcom's analysis of today's media world is anything but batty. It understands the dynamics and consequences of the advance of digital better than most. It also understands that the public-service burden currently imposed upon commercial broadcasters is becoming increa-singly outmoded and unworkable.

Ofcom's logic is compelling and its adherence to Parliament's remit unswerving.

Do we detect, however, the faintest outline of a tongue in a cheek? A month ago, Carter wrote in The Guardian: "At the end of the debate, the nation may decide that Parliament set Ofcom the wrong exam question and that we should spend less on and get less of public service television." Indeed it may. While it's hard for most people to object to the idea of PSB, it's quite another thing to actually cough up for it. It's at this point that the whole edifice starts to crumble. In the unlikely event that the public is prepared to pay for more PSB, will it actually watch?

We couldn't be too choosy in the deferential 50s, but we can now and even public-service broadcasting has to keep an eye on the ratings. So don't bother searching for a new PSB channel when you're watching TV ten years from now. It'll never happen.para.

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