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Do the benefits of Public Service Broadcasting justify the price tag?

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Kimberley Thomson                                                                        Media Policy

In the recent report by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, the chair Blair Jenkins said “Broadcasting is important to the economic, cultural and democratic health of the nation. At its best, it has a unique power and impact which can enrich our imagination and our thinking, and our space to share, discuss and challenge as a society.”But ITV has also recently said that the costs of such Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) outweigh the benefits and have asked Ofcom to reduce their PSB commitments in areas such as local news and current affairs.  Do you think that the benefits of Public Service Broadcasting justify the price tag?

Module Number: LAMC207

Module Leader: Catriona Miller

Matriculation Number: 200707989

In the UK, Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) is put into service by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which was founded in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company, later becoming the corporation in 1927.  The BBC’s content is regulated by the BBC Trust, although some output is regulated in addition by the Office of Communications (Ofcom): the UK’s independent regulatory authority for broadcasting.  For the BBC, this means of regulating is the case for certain output which is broadcast on its services in the UK (www.ofcom.org.uk).  However, with such a service comes a price: the licence fee- the BBC’s means of funding.  The licence fee is currently £139.50 for a colour licence and a considerably lower £47.00 for a black and white (bbc.co.uk).  “Almost all debates about the BBC tend to come down to debates about the licence fee, payment by every owner of a television set of a fee to be allowed to receive the broadest signals.” (Tracey, 1998: 99).  Despite the BBC’s efforts to deliver highest quality services and its significant impact on society debatably right to the present day, whether the costs of the service outweigh the benefits is still largely under dispute.  In this essay, I will discuss the benefits and detriments of the BBC’s public service and licence fee. With particular emphasis applied to the advent of the digital age, I will explore ideas and conclude as to whether it should be sustained.  Although the BBC supplies ten radio networks and dozens of local radio services, for the purpose of this essay I will focus solely on television broadcasting to allow fewer subject issues to be explored in more depth and complexity.

When assessing the benefits and detriments of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) together with its licence fee, we must first consider: what is Public Service Broadcasting?  In the published document, Building Public Value, The BBC allege that Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) “can perhaps best be defined as a range of high-quality programmes and services whose only aim is to serve the public interest, be universally available, and treat people equitably and fairly” (BBC, 2005: 26).  However, over the years, the concept of PSB has broadened, thus  a “concrete definition of public service content and indeed, public service broadcasting, remains elusive...”. Director of Economic Policy Studies, Irwin Stelzer, at the Hudson Institute averred that “...‘the hunt for definition is a feckless search’, as it allow policy-makers to make the ‘mistake’ of defining public service content as ‘anything you want it to be’” (Media and Sport Committee House of Commons, 2007: 8).  Thus there is some discrepancy between definitions of PSB, although what we can certify is that in the UK PSB refers to broadcasting intended for the public interest rather than for the sole purpose of commercial gain.  

The BBCs first Director General- Lord Reith, whom is still highly regarded to this day- employed the commitment to ‘inform, educate and entertain’: the vision that pioneered some of the concepts that still define UK’s PSB in the present day.  Reith “realised the potentials of the new electronic forms of media as systems of social regulation and as a grand theatre for the celebration of national values and traditions”.  He believed that “broadcasting had, above all, a civilising mission.”  (Dyson et al, 1988: 70).  One could claim that the BBC follows this convention to this day: that it maintains a sense of national identity, uniting the nation by broadcasting events such as traditional royal weddings and even the funeral of Princess Diana.  Author Monroe Price states that “Public Service Broadcasting is needed as a tool of pluralism and diversity, as an instrument of education, unification, and building a constructive national identity.” – (Price et al, 2003:7).  With plurality of programming being one of the BBC’s core values- catering for minority interests as well as the mass audience- we can observe this notion of unity, of reconciliation.  For particular cultural forms, broadcasters which do not aim to serve the public interest have an irrefutable bias.  This is certainly the case with popular culture.  PSB is therefore used to communicate standards concerning cultural policy.  For example, the use of on-screen presenters and commentators of different ethnic origins means the BBC promotes cross-culturalism.  One would suggest that such values presented in programming compensate the cost of PSB.  However, one could argue that this means of implementing cultural policy compels the principles of the broadcaster on the public.  Similarly, the citizens do not choose what is broadcast, and many choose not to watch the BBC.  Yet the licence fee is imposed on all in possession of a television set able to receive signals and it is a criminal offence not to contribute whether one uses the BBC’s services or not.  

The BBC had what Reith referred to as the ‘brute force of monopoly’ over all broadcasting until the “arrival of independent television (ITV) in 1954 presented the BBC with its most formidable challenge”.  ITV began broadcasting in 1955, initially considering itself a “popular alternative to the elitist provided by the BBC” (McDonnel, 1990: 3).  It was such a success that it attained more than 70% of ratings within two years of its broadcasting commencement (Gasson, 1995: 116).  With the subsequent advent of the state owned commercial public service broadcaster- Channel 4 in 1982, and commercial analogue broadcasters- ITV, and channel 5 in 1995 (rebranded as Five in 2002) (Gardiner, 2005: 178), and with the growing power of satellite broadcasters, many question whether it is longer necessary for the BBC’s public service.  In The Review of the BBC’s Royal Charter, it is stated that “a lot of sky output meets the standard of public service broadcasting although it is not obliged to” (Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review, 2005-06: 42). Furthermore, Channel 4 and Five have considerable public service obligations which are mandatory if they wish to withhold their broadcasting licence, thus PSB is not exclusive to the BBC. Ofcom seems to have perceived the BBC’s means of revenue as unfair on other broadcasters, as it suggested giving some of the income of the licence fee to channel 4.  One could argue that the licence fee is unjust as the BBC is in too dominant a position and the public must pay for services which are to an extent presented by other broadcasters free of charge.

However, “Ofcom admits that it will be unable to ensure that commercial public service broadcasters like ITV meet the public service obligations after digital switchover- the point at which broadcasting no longer operates on analogue systems” (Johnson et al, 2005: 31).  It is probable that this forthcoming decline in public service obligations will result in greater competition to attract audience in order to gain more advertising revenue.  Although this could result in the production of higher quality programmes to capture viewers, those programmes will likely be catering predominantly for the mass audience and it is possible that minority interests will rarely be addressed.  Moreover, it is credible that broadcasting will become increasingly less based on educational content and progressively more so on entertainment, as is the case in America.  One major benefit of the BBC is that it does not rely on advertising as a source of revenue, allowing programmes that are less marketable to the mass audience to be broadcast. Such programmes include documentaries, public affairs shows and educational programmes.  This also means the BBC is able to explore subjects more profoundly and complexly than such commercial media, as it broadcasts on numerous channels and does not pursue ratings to the same extent as commercial broadcasters.  This would suggest that the benefits of the licence fee justify the price tag, as the BBC caters for minorities, emits programmes with educational value and explores issues in great depth and intricacy. However, with digital-switchover, such core values of the BBC could prove hard to maintain.  

Many would now allege that the tradition of PSB is unsustainable: the “end of spectrum scarcity promised by digital switchover makes Public Service Broadcasting unnecessary...”.  Indeed, digital switchover means multi-channel access with increasing viewer choice. Author Damian Tambini’s analysis exemplifies that “...audiences for the traditional PSB genres... declines precipitously when viewers are offered more choice.”  
(Tambini, 2004: 1, 2).  With resulting audience fragmentation “there is danger that the private sector may withdraw from PSB...” due to increased competition to capture audience.  Thus Ofcom initiated a new definition of PSB: the provision of programming that is ‘...high quality, original, innovative, challenging, engaging and widely available’”.  (Campbell, 2006: 1).  One would argue that the values of PSB are moving further away from Reith’s conception, and that PSB died when ITV began the era of competition. One could further affirm that without the BBC, Britain would quickly lose all public interest value and would suffer an ‘American invasion’ concerning its broadcasting.  “From its birth in 1922, British broadcasting defined itself partly in opposition to the ‘American experience’... which was found to be ‘a sort of chaos’.”  (Nitshe, 2001:39).  This would suggest that the benefits of the BBC’s public service outweigh the cost, as it diminishes both lack of diversity concerning programme genre and broadcasters only being interested in commercial gain.  However, one could argue that because the BBC does not chase ratings for revenue, PSB is unresponsive to what viewers want broadcast.  As writer Neil Midgley states, “Channel 4’s ratings are down 15 per cent since its ‘creative renewal’ last year- if audiences don’t like its public service vision” (Midgley, 2008) then why should we pay?

One could argue that the BBC protects the viewer and listener from political intervention with its independent editorial power.  Yet in the article: Head to head: Licence fee debate, Jonathan Miller argues “the BBC’s claim that the licence fee gives it independence is fantasy-based.  The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (with the consent of Downing Street) even appoints the BBC’s own board of trustees.” (www.news.bbc.co.uk).  A particularly gratuitous result of PSB is that funding from Government means there is unavoidable bureaucratic intervention.  In the recent past, “members of the news service of the BBC went on strike to protest Government interference in the showing of a television documentary on terrorism...  The government called the interview ‘dangerous propaganda’; the television news team called it ‘pertinent information’.  (Jowett, 2006: 130) One could therefore stress that state interference with the BBC’s services overrides the benefits of PSB.  Although on a plus note, One could argue that the BBC, having the reputation of being unbiased through the advent of World War II, continued to draw viewers who even nowadays depend on its every day broadcasts.  But with intervention comes some extent of BBC compliance in order to avoid conflict.  Hence one would argue that because the public do not have a direct say in what is broadcast and the BBC is omitted the chance of its own Subscription policy, the only body gaining from PSB is the Government.

Overall, there is very little conformity on the existence of the BBC and its licence fee.  However, when one weighs the benefits against the ‘cons’ of the corporation, it seems that more valuable than detrimental effects are achieved.  Many of the possible beneficial factors of a Britain without the BBC are overruled by the negative effects which could occur if the BBC were to be eradicated.  This is clear when the majority of these are weighed up in terms of the advent of the digital age.  For example, the argument that abolishing the BBC in time with the rise of digital broadcasting would incur more viewer choice and quality of programming is overruled when you take into account the effects of audience fragmentation.  The result would be more intense competition between broadcasters whose transmissions would become ever more based on commerce.  It is probable that broadcasting in Britain would become just like that in America.  Our stations would be dominated by adverts and commercials and the shows aired would be out to cater for the majority. Without the BBC, broadcasting would become both less diverse and original, with more imported television shows being shown on our screens.  With the coming of digital takeover, one would suggest that we should hold onto what PSB we have left, and take pride in paying the licence that funds a service that holds so much national value and identity, is unbiased and ‘whose only aim is to serve the public interest’.  One would therefore maintain that the benefits of the BBC’s public service far outweigh the price, because you “tamper with the licence fee and you tamper with the institution...”.  And where would Britain be without it?  “...Destroy the licence fee and you destroy the BBC” (Tracey, 1998: 99).  


Campbell, D. (2006), International Telecommunications Law, Volume I.  

Dyson, K. et al (1988), Broadcasting and New Media Policies in Western Europe, Routledge.

Gardiner, M. (2005), Modern Scottish Culture, Edinburgh University Press.

Gasson, C. (1995), Media Equities: Evaluation and Trading, Woodhead Publishing, Cambridge, England.  

Great Britain: Parliament: House of Lords: Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review, The Review of the BBC’s Royal Charter: 1st Report of Session 2005-06, Volume II: Evidence, The Stationary Office.

House of Commons- Culture, Great Britain: Parliament: House of Commons: Culture, Media and Sport Committee (2007), Public Service Content: First Report of Session 2007-08, Vol 1, The Stationary Office.

Johnson, C. et al (2005), ITV Cultures: Independent Television Over Fifty Years, McGraw-Hill International.

Jowett, S. et al (2006), Propaganda and Persuasion, 2006, SAGE Publications Ltd.

McDonnel, J. (1990), Public Service Broadcasting: A Reader, Routledge.

Nitshe, I. (2001), Broadcasting in the European Union: The Role of Public Interest in Competition Analysis, T.M.C. Asser Press).  

Price et al (2003), Public Service Broadcasting in Transition, Kluwer Law International.

Tambini, D. (2004), From Public Service Broadcasting to Public Service Communications, Institute for Public Policy Research.

Tracey, M. (1998) The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting, Oxford University Press.

Internet sites consulted

British Broadcasting Corporation (2005), Building Public Value [online] available at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/foi/docs/bbc_constitution/bbc_royal_charter_and_agreement/Building_Public_Value.pdf  (last accessed 28/10/08)

Addition to the Memorandum of Understanding between Ofcom and the BBC Trust to deal with regulatory jurisdiction, Office of Communications,, (last accessed 06/11/08)

Head to head: Licence fee debate, Miller, J. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6272273.stm, (last accessed 27/10/08).

Licence fee key facts, British Broadcasting Corporation,http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/keyfacts/stories/licencefee.shtml, (last accessed 06/11/08)

Make the BBC fight for the licence fee, Midgley, N. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2008/09/26/do2603.xml, (last accessed 26/10/08).

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