Threat to Public Service Broadcasting

P.S. Worth adding that the Welsh language ( though partly bilingual) channel S4C has around £90m funding per year for an audience, hit by digital choice, of approximately 511.000 last year.

Fascinating stuff from the Ofcom seminar in Belfast about the future of public service broadcasting in Northern Ireland, posted by Mick. I’ve long since left the inside track on this, so sorry not to be able to offer special insight but

Here are the headlines:

There’s a real threat to the present level of public service broadcasting stemming from ITV’s need to go ever more relentlessly commercial in order to survive in the mass channel digital market. PSB can be defined as news and current affairs, cultural including serious music, religious and ethical, nature and quality children’s programmes – all expensive genres which usually don’t bring in high advertising revenue and have been running at an increasing loss.

The BBC is fiercely resisting pressure from the regulator Ofcom ( note website under repair) to share say, 20% of its licence fee revenue with any other broadcaster.

For UTV, the options are complex and difficult and the future is uncertain.

Northern Ireland is unique as the only UK region which appreciates locally-made programming like UTV Live, Insight and Lesser Spotted Ulster equally with or more than the big network blockbusters like Corrie and Eastenders.

The cut allowed by the regulator Ofcom in PSB hours from 4 to 3 per week from next year by a financially strapped ITV plc and the likelihood of an eventual reduction in PSB hours to virtually zero, is therefore a big blow to the NI audience. Since the old ITV regional federation was replaced by a single ITV plc, omitting UTV, the Belfast broadcaster has been isolated and vulnerable.

What’s the future for UTV? Now being examined is an all-Ireland licence or partnership with RTE which would create a big enough market for ITV to sell its schedule to. It wouldn’t mean the end of UTV and the creation of a single major all-Ireland broadcaster, or a British takeover of the State broadcaster of the Republic. (This is my assurance; such an idea wasn’t even discussed). But fundamental political, regulatory and technological issues are involved. This idea was confirmed by Michael Wilson of UTV and RTE director general Cathal Goan.

A representative from the Belfast community radio Irish language Radio Failte (sorry I didn’t catch his name) described as “ positively insulting” the 500k total funding and the 5k for his station from the Irish language fund. This drew the historic admission from Pat Loughrey, director of BBC nations and regions that there was “a tendency of the BBC to overstep, frankly and there is space for a separate community offer”. There were “lots of ways to support community radio.” The BBC had offered to provide equipment and training as well as news bulletins “a prime asset” free of charge, provided they were clearly labeled.

Overall the debate was cautious and solutions to the problem aired are some way off.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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