Category Archives: Ofcom

Ofcom entry ‘a bit boring’ says author

That Ofcom entry was a bit boring wasn’t it? Even by my standards. Two or three people have told me they actually fell asleep while reading it – one while driving a school bus at speed in heavy traffic. So I feel obliged to come back and provide a pithier summary. I think it’s like this:

Almost everyone in new media and broadcast wants a new public service commissioning vehicle called the PSP to start funneling license fee money into new interactive content.

There’s no good argument for the PSP because the conditions that produced the original public service media settlement no longer exist.

Ofcom is obliged to take into account the interests of all relevant stakeholders in producing recommendations. Consequently it’s going to be very hard for Ofcom to say ‘no’ to the PSP (although there’ll be some cheese-paring for sure).

So we’ll probably get one anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that’s probably a pretty good thing. But we should take a bit of time to decide why, in a post-scarcity, post-Reith, post-Internet world we should subsidise the creation of content and services in the absence of classical market failure.

Was that better?

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.

Have we had a good week then?

Stuart Cosgrove, nations and regions guy at Channel 4, speaking at Ofcom

I went down to Ofcom yesterday to speak to a small ‘stakeholder conference’ about what they’re calling a ‘PSP’ (Public Service Publisher). I’ll write a proper entry about the PSP later but, in the meantime, there are some pics from the session here. I showed the pics to my wife and she said the whole thing looked a bit too much like a Weight Watchers meeting for her liking…

Your tax dollar in action…

The Ofcom PSP seminar crowd, stage leftThe Ofcom PSP seminar crowd, stage right
I’ve been meaning to blog this for ages but I just haven’t been able to form the words in my head. Why? Anyway, I’ve been helping a sort of loose consortium, led by legendary geek hate figure David Docherty (don’t worry, he didn’t do it), who used to be fabulously important at the BBC and then at Telewest but whose timing could have been a bit better (like leaving the Beeb just as the crash started). David brought together top media folks from Accenture and BT and from old-fashioned TV production… and me… to brainstorm a response to Ofcom’s absolutely fascinating mock tender document for a new ?300M per year ‘Public Service Publisher’ (which came out of the regulator’s recent Review of Public Service Broadcasting). Lots of people have heaped praise on Ofcom for this very left-field response to the challenges of post-analogue switch-off public service media. I think it’s a very clever and very appropriate response too.

So the mock tender process saw us presenting with two other consortia to an overheated roomful of the biggest names in media (mostly TV). The idea is to gather ideas before a real tender process can start next year. I’m pleased to say that ours was the clear winner on the day (Adam Singer, chair of the X-Factor-style judging panel, actually came over and told us: “Game over. You won”). To be fair, the other two tenders were also fascinating: one was from a consortium of museums and the other a much more conventional TV-led group, including Fremantle Media and Vodafone (they probably won’t want to claim claim credit for the absolutely horrible word: ‘mobisode‘, used liberally in their presentation).

Our presentation went under the name ‘Six’, which is, I think, David’s in-joke about how this ‘channel’ will be positioned in relation to the other public service broadcasters. The exciting things about the proposal, from my point of view, are: that it makes no assumption about the primary channel (the net will be at least as important as TV, radio etc.), that it suggests an ‘open source’ approach to commissioned content (it’ll be a Creative Commons platform from day one) and that it’s utterly bottom-up (we envisage a very light-weight commissioning process that’s hyper-automated and that could actually be reduced to a set of APIs – how cool is that?).

Anyway, here’s the presentation, in horrible Powerpoint form (I’ll see if I can convert it to HTML later). We’d be fascinated to get your feedback on this.

Owen Gibson wrote the seminar up for The Guardian and I put some pics on flickr.com.