Reinventing public service media

Influential people at media regulator Ofcom think that public service media is in danger. They think that in a few years if we do nothing there’ll be a huge hole in public service provision. People will start to miss out, some social groups will suffer more than others and public service goals will go unmet.

After three years of consultation and debate they’ve published a big report about the likely shape of the public service media in the future (they call it the ‘Public Service Publisher’ or PSP).

The report, which came out in January, is fascinating and well worth the download but it leaves big questions unanswered. Ofcom’s persuasive but essentially unsupported premise is that we need a new model for public service media because the old one is worn out.

The existing public service platform (essentially terrestrial broadcast TV) is shrinking and fragmenting while competitive pressure makes it harder and harder to justify giving over valuable airtime to minority-interest PS programming.

Common sense says that you can’t achieve expanding public service goals while your audience is shrinking. There’s no point at all in educating, entertaining and informing the vanishing rump of mainstream broadcast viewers into their twilight years.

The slow decay of the current public service set-up is self-evident but not a good enough reason on its own to build a shiny new network-era replacement. Neither is the fact that cool and/or socially important things are happening in interactive media.

The geeks and the new media lobbyists have got predictably over-excited. They imagine a groovy, distributed, networked, bottom-up companion for the BBC (and the other public service providers) that hoovers up £50M+ of Government and/or licence fee funding.

Their dream entity will use web 2.0 methods to build out a clever, accessible library of content and services on the internet model (and, while we’re at it, fund a new generation of independent production houses in the way C4 funded all those little telly shops twenty years ago). So far so persuasive.

Ofcom’s job is not to rubber stamp industry fantasies, though. The regulator must first decide there really is a hole in the ozone layer of public service provision, then decide what’s actually missing (let’s assume it’s not reality TV formats or cookery shows).

The whole of the existing public service framework belongs to the long, grey era before multi-channel TV, before the net, before mobile apps, social networking, Wikipedia, YouTube, blogging, WoW, Twitter – before Tony Blackburn for that matter. The media landscape is orders of magnitude broader and more accessible than it was when Lord Reith brought the tablets down from the mountain.

And it’s not just the ‘new media’ that are richer and more useful. Consult the magazine selection in a newsagent or the three-for-two table in a bookshop next time they let you out: there’s never been a better selection of printed media and it’s never been cheaper. Public service rules written when a working class family’s weekly exposure to print media was an evening paper on weekdays and the People’s Friend at the weekend can’t possibly apply today.

Across the board, media is better and more plentiful that it’s ever been. It’s also more participative, user-generated and bottom-up. The risk is that while Ofcom and license fee-protected media worry about charter renewal, license fee uprating and a new public service settlement, commercial, advertiser-funded media is busy building out the de facto public service infrastructure of the future – on the Internet.

The heresy that Ofcom must face up to, before it does anything else, is simple: what if we don’t need any more public service media?

Of course, building out a user-generated ‘BBC 2.0’ on the net – a haven for community capacity-building, local participation, democratic scrutiny of public institutions, investment in social capital and all the other entirely worthwhile preoccupations of the tech utopians – would hardly be a bad thing.

Meanwhile, only a handful of big commercial media owners are brave enough to put their heads above the parapet and argue for the removal of the BBC’s special status and an even smaller group of free market legislators support them.

The seventy-five year-old implicit contract that sustains the public’s tolerance of the most expensive subsidised media infrastructure in the world is still in force. There’s no public pressure for Gordon Brown to unravel the Beeb and its supporting culture at all so, let’s face it, the PSP is probably a done deal.

Still, you can’t run an expensive, vastly influential public institution on autopilot and there must be no indefinite lease on the public’s attention. If, as is quite possible, there’s no real need for a PSP, Ofcom’s unpleasant task is to say so.