The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee House of Commons Select Committee has published a report on the future of public service broadcasting.

The report argues that public service broadcasters are being let down by out-of-date legislation and it calls for new broadcasting legislation which would enable them to compete and thrive in a new media age with a right to prominence on digital platforms. It concludes that because there isn’t the necessary broadband infrastructure to facilitate other funding mechanisms, the government cannot currently move away from the licence fee.

The key points in the report are that:

  • infrastructure delays are preventing a universal online public service broadcasting system and although there is a significant amount of content online, people who rely on linear TV need to be protected. As well as infrastructure delays, shortcomings in digital literacy skills could result in 1.8 million households losing television and public service broadcasting services if they were entirely internet-based;
  • the Communications Act 2003 is outdated, and the UK needs new broadcasting legislation. The report says that the government has been too slow to act on Ofcom’s 2019 recommendations to update legislation on prominence, ensuring that public service broadcasting content remains easy to find for viewers on internet-connected services and devices;
  • the remit of the Digital Markets Unit needs to be broadened to consider if the dominance of online platforms gives them ‘undue influence’ over the ability of consumers to access public service broadcasting content, both online and through streaming, as public service broadcasters increasingly rely on third-party platforms such as social media to distribute their content;
  • the government must engage with how public service broadcasters are funded to ensure they can continue providing linear broadcasting, which remains crucial to older audiences, while also investing in on-demand services;
  • broadcasters could help themselves to attract digital audiences, eg such as the Britbox initiative.  They should be allowed to collaborate to give them a better chance of competing in the crowded video on demand market. They should explore options for collaboration on a single video on demand platform, and Ofcom should support them in doing so; and
  • the report rules out alternatives to the BBC licence fee, such as household or individual fee; state budget funding; advertising; subscription; or supplementary taxation. None of these were considered sufficiently better as a whole to recommend as an alternative.  Further, the government needs to make a final decision on whether to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee.

Taking these points into account, the report makes the following recommendations to the government:

  • prioritise new primary legislation to update the Communications Act 2003 and grant public sector broadcasters prominence which extends beyond the Electronic Programme Guide;
  • changes should be made to the regulatory structure to enable broadcasters to innovate more rapidly and easily, and to be able to better compete online;
  • the government should devise a strong alternative to the BBC licence fee that it can put to Parliament, or strongly support the current model for at least the next Charter period (2028 - 2038) and actively help the BBC to reduce evasion; and
  • if budgets are going to continue to decline in real terms, the government should review the expectations set for public service broadcasters.

The report also identifies concerns about the decline in local and regional news provision both by ITV and the BBC and calls on Ofcom to review the quality and relevance of the local and regional news provision.