The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Small Screen Big Debate

Small Screen, Big Debate


By Jayne Kirkham, Writer, Clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children's Media and the Arts, and CMF Board Member

Small Screen: Big Debate 2020, Ofcom's virtual conference on Public Service Broadcasting, ran across three days of pre-recorded panel discussions and interviews, plus a live debate, during which Ofcom promised to explore a range of themes, including what role Public Service Broadcasting would play in the future, how audience needs are best met and the future of funding for PSB. 

So, the same questions that are asked at all the conferences about PSB.  But this time, might the answers be different?  As my Children's Media Foundation colleague Colin Ward says, ‘it helps to listen to the mood music; the thoughts that are hinted at but not always spoken out loud.’ And Colin writes about YouTube's perceptions of itself as a public service provider elsewhere in this CMF news blog.

Day 1: we heard June Sarpong, the BBC’s Director of Creative Diversity, talk with clarity and determination about what the BBC needs to do, with no hint of evasion or any attempt to downplay the corporation’s failures in this area.  There was acknowledgement that delivering on diversity commitments is an important test for all PSBs, but particularly for an organisation like the BBC that has been built on a universal link to its audience.

The theme continued with a panel discussion that highlighted the richness of the content that can grow from a truly diverse production community.  But hanging over the discussion were the failed attempts to affect real change in the past, ending up back where we started.  The message was not so much a question of the long road we need to travel, but how we get off the roundabout.

Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP finished off the day in conversation with Krishnan Guru-Murthy.  Stating the advent of universal gigabit broadband ‘changes the landscape’, the culture minister suggested this opened the door for the BBC and other PSBs to switch to a subscription model. Again, the mood music was interesting: whereas in the past this would have been met with stony resistance, there was a sense of a turning point coming, not too far into the future, when exploring alternative ways of funding public service broadcasting could be an opportunity to strengthen rather than weaken our PSBs.

Day 2 looked at what viewers want and expect from their public service provision, and how the commercial broadcasters are meeting their needs.  Anna Mallett, CEO at ITN spoke about how Covid-19 has highlighted the public’s trust and need for news providers that are regulated and quality controlled.

Zai Bennett, Director of Sky Atlantic suggested that you don’t need a PSB licence to make PSB programmes. He argued that Sky makes PSB content ‘not because we have to but because we feel it’s right for our audiences’. However, Bennett felt that the current public service ecology serves well, encouraging competition and providing training for the industry as a whole.

Beyond these commercial benefits to the wider industry, Shaminder Nahal, Commissioning Editor of Specialist Factual for Channel 4 reminded the conference of the PSBs ability to serve the underserved, making programmes that can’t be found elsewhere: programmes like 'Grayson’s Art Club', offering topicality and a shared experience. While there is a need for the PSBs to be more digitally focussed, going to the platforms that their audiences are using, there is still also a need for the big shared moments on linear. And most importantly these shared moments must remain free and universally available.

Much of this was reiterated by Mark Thompson, former Chief Executive of Channel 4, Director-General of the BBC and CEO of the New York Times Company.  He said with audiences under 60 years migrating to digital, the traditional broadcasters have been left behind and very few are able to compete with U.S. global colossi like Netflix or Disney +. In order to survive, the PSBs will need to prove to the audience that life without their distinctive value is unimaginable.

The final day brought together all the ‘big cheeses’ on one tasty platter, as the CEOs of the PSBs took to the stage.  They said most of the things you would expect them to say – investing in talent, serving the audience etc.  But there was also a strong sense that they are now keen to play together on the same team instead of competing.  The game for some time has been about how they cooperate to protect and strengthen the UK’s media production community.  They are all under considerable pressure in terms of advertising revenue and, in C4’s case, political pressure.  John Whittingdale may be a “friend of public service broadcasting” but he also said “the world is changing and they [the PSBs] need to adapt to take account.”

Do we detect a threat?  Perhaps. But the commercial PSBs are still accepting their public service remits and stressing their public service ambitions.  Does this mean they see continuing commercial value in UK public service content as part of their portfolio even when also competing in the burgeoning global market?  If so , that must surely strengthen Ofcom's ability to hold them to meet their obligations. And that will benefit the young audience.

I have been to a lot of conferences about PSB.  And while people say the right things, very little seems to change.  Maybe because this was online and I had nobody to talk to during the coffee break and my selection of biscuits was not conference standard, I have grown rather impatient with hearing the same old same old.  It is gratifying that the PSBs seem keen to work together and maybe this time diversity and inclusion policies will make a difference and maybe now is the time to look at alternative funding models.

But what would surely make a difference is if Ofcom, who hosted this conference and are in the middle of, what will undoubtedly be a thorough inquiry into the future of public service broadcasting, took hold of their legal powers and genuinely held the broadcasters, both public service, commercial, digital – anybody that makes money providing content to the British public - to account.


CMF plans to explore the long-term future of public service content for children and young people in the UK.

Industry Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)