Ofcom PSB Review - consultation response

5 May 2004
  1. BECTU is the trade union for creative, technical and administrative workers, other than performers, in the audiovisual and live entertainment sectors. We have already provided a response to Ofcom's Review of Public Service Television Broadcasting. In this subsequent response to Ofcom's Phase 1 Report we propose to highlight only those issues of particular interest and concern to BECTU and to our members' interests rather than to comment on the entirety of Ofcom's wide-ranging research and findings in Phase 1. Further and more comprehensive responses may be required depending on the future development of the Ofcom Review of PSB [Public Service Broadcasting]. We have given particular attention to those propositions (outlined by Ofcom for further consideration in Phase 2) regarded as of most direct concern to our members' interests.
  2. Proposition 1

  3. We acknowledge the 'need to examine the prospects for PSB funding and the case for seeking alternative resources' and that 'the existing commercial funding base for PSB is being eroded'. We further acknowledge that 'new forms of explicit or implicit funding or support for PSB need to be considered for the longer term', including 'electronic programme guide positioning, digital multiplex access' and 'commercial TV's payments to the Treasury'. We have argued before that some reduction in ITV Treasury payments should be considered in exchange for strong continuing commitments to original production from the broadcasters.
  4. However, we emphatically do not regard the reallocation of BBC licence fee income - as suggested for consideration in other Propositions - as an acceptable alternative funding source for commercial PSB broadcasters.
  5. Propositions 2 and 3

  6. We have significant concerns about key aspects of Proposition 2 ('We need to examine the case for sharing existing funding streams among a greater number of broadcasters and allowing broadcasters or producers to bid for PSB funding') and of Proposition 3 ('a second [option] is to make allocation through a new intermediary (a 'purchaser' of PSB) with either broadcasters or producers as recipients ('providers' of PSB)'.
  7. We take these Propositions to imply or to include the possibility of diverting or 'top-slicing' BBC licence fee income to other PSB broadcasters via an intermediary such as an Arts Council of the Air. We strong oppose any such development, as indicated in paragraphs 20-22 of our initial submission to Ofcom on PSB and in our submission to DCMS on BBC Charter Renewal (extract attached). We believe 'top-slicing' to have all the potential negative and disruptive characteristics of rail privatisation - weakening a valuable public service, diverting scarce public resources to private profit, introducing a superfluous layer of chaotic competition and leading to an inferior service for viewers.
  8. Top-slicing will, we believe, have clear and certain negative effects on our PSB system including - based on the recent research by Oliver and Ohlbaum Associates - a net reduction in original UK production. Speculative concerns about future PSB funding can be addressed by other methods including - as indicated above - by reduced Treasury payments on the part of commercial PSB broadcasters. We hope that Ofcom will reconsider these points and avoid further advocacy of top-slicing or similar proposals to divert BBC licence fee income.
  9. Proposition 6

  10. We fully agree that 'there is a strong case for the BBC to continue to undertake a wide range of activities to underpin the delivery of the public purposes and characteristics of PSB.' However, we are concerned that Ofcom should choose to emphasise the need for a review of its activities, including in particular 'studio and other production resources, and indeed production'.
  11. The BBC is currently under intense scrutiny during the Charter Review. In that context, we have argued strongly for the maintenance of a strong commitment to in-house production at the BBC as a key component of the Corporation's ability to fulfil its PSB remit, with the additional advantage that best practice in terms of training and equal opportunities - which ultimately benefits the whole broadcasting sector - is usually best delivered in the context of permanent employment rather than the fragmented and casualised freelance labour market.
  12. We see no particular merit in or justification for any separate Ofcom review of BBC production resources. Instead, we would prefer the regulator to take at least as close an interest in ITV plc's current shedding of PSB production resources through proposed studio closures and redundancies. This, in our view, has serious and immediate negative implications for ITV regional PSB production and yet appears to attract no serious attention in the Report's consideration of current and developing trends in PSB.
  13. Proposition 8

  14. In relation to Channel Four, we acknowledge that the Channel 'will need to overcome increasing financial pressure if its contribution to PSB is to be viable in a fully digital world'. However, for the reasons set out above, we do not believe that 'a share of the licence fee' is an appropriate solution.
  15. We strongly agree that 'Channel 4's distinctive role and ethos should be maintained on a secure footing through its ownership status, covenants and expression of purposes'. We take this to mean that Ofcom, like BECTU, would be strongly opposed to any notion of privatisation of Channel Four.
  16. Proposition 9

  17. While acknowledging that ' independent producers make a major contribution to PSB purposes' we do not accept the 'supposition' that 'there is more scope for independent production', including consideration of 'raising the quota'.
  18. We are strongly opposed to recent proposals to raise the independent quota and reduce broadcasters' in-house production capacity. Our basic arguments are set out in paragraph 7-10 of our initial submission, supplemented by paragraphs 15-18 on training, equal opportunities and creators' rights. The independent sector - which is entirely the product of public service television regulation in the UK - has already achieved a highly favoured and protected position in our broadcasting sector. The balance of the argument is now, in our view, in favour of retaining a critical mass of in-house production capacity in our PSB broadcasters - with all the advantages this offers in terms of economies of scale and the freedom to innovate.
  19. On the contrary, we believe that the independent sector - which is now highly concentrated and includes companies significantly larger than a number of the broadcasting franchises - now merits a more critical approach by Ofcom. The independent sector is undoubtedly 'an important part of the mix to deliver effective PSB' but regulators have all too often appeared to take the sector's own description of its position and activities at face value rather than adopting the (rightly) more questioning approach taken to broadcasters. In particular, the hypocrisy of the independents' position on rights - ie to complain about their treatment by broadcasters while sometimes adopting equally exploitative attitudes to individual creators - deserves greater attention.
  20. Genre-Specific PSB Regulations

  21. We note Ofcom's intention, in the near future, to 'break away from narrow obligations specifying hours of certain types of programming', and that this will involve 'a new framework of remits' and that 'Ofcom will work with the commercial broadcasters to develop and introduce this new framework.'
  22. While acknowledging the limitations of a so-called 'box-ticking' approach to regulation, we hope the steps proposed amount to a reorientation rather than a weakening of PSB regulation. The difference between what commercial broadcasters find convenient to produce or commission and what the broader public interest in our PSB system requires is sufficient to cause a degree of concern about any excessive reliance on commercial broadcasters' preferences when deciding on the future pattern of regulation. We hope that Ofcom's proposals in this area will be sufficiently independent of the broadcasters and will be subject to public discussion prior to the implementation of any proposed changes.
  23. Regional Production Quota

  24. We note that Ofcom has developed new criteria for programmes to count as regional independent productions. We believe the emphasis on the M25 as the relevant boundary betrays an unduly London centred view of the issue. We would like to see an additional positive statement in favour of supporting and developing existing regional production centres - all of which are located far from the M25. We further note that the use of the M25 boundary as the sole geographical criterion has led to abuses of the system, including the ludicrous notion of Amersham as a regional production base.
  25. Conclusion

  26. We look forward to further opportunities to participate as the PSB Review develops. We hope Ofcom will pay due attention to the views of those working in the industry as well as to the corporate interests in our sector.
Last updated 15 June 2004