Service Stations 

1 September 2001

Is broadcasting actually providing a public service, or has it given in to rampant commercialism? That is a question that bugs me all the time, and not just as a fan, but as a producer too.

Everything you do these days has to be sold purely on its commercial value, rather than fulfilling the “inform, educate and entertain” principles that Lord Reith instilled in the BBC in its early days. These days, broadcasters seem to use the loosest definition of Public Service Broadcasting they can possibly get away with, namely the providing of a service of some kind or other to the public. These channels can inform, they can educate, they can entertain or they can do any combination of those three. But there do seem to be some TV channels that do not inform, educate or entertain, but are simply commercialism running rampant. These are the kinds of services that would have Lord Reith turning in his grave.

So how would you rate whether a television channel is fulfilling any kind of public service obligation? Well, obviously you must rate whether you think the service being provided by the channel is educational, informative and entertaining. Then average these ratings out into an overall public service rating, on a scale of 0 to 10. 0 would represent a channel that is rampantly commercial, whilst 10 would represent a channel that is completely public service orientated. You won’t often see a 10 in broadcasting, but you just might see a few zeros. Pay-Per-View channels obviously are event-based channels rather like going to a concert, or a theatre, or a sports event, or a cinema. As such I’ve not included them in these ratings.

So, just what would some of the services on Digital TV score? Well, let’s start with those that do score zeros right down the bottom end of our public service scale. These are the shopping channels, such as QVC, ScreenShop,, Simply Shopping, Best Direct, TV Travel Shop and Travel Deals Direct, and others like them. Their best service argument is that they provide people a chance to shop and book holidays from the comfort of their own home. Ok, so it’s a service, but it doesn’t inform, it doesn’t educate, and it certainly doesn’t entertain. These channels are purely commercially driven.

There is nothing even remotely “public service” about them. Also in this area are several of the really specialist channels, such as The Dating Channel and the religious channels. These channels do not inform, educate or entertain, but provide a different kind of service, which is basically commercial in nature. For example, the programming found on the religious channels is mainly the “Holler a Dollar” programming that found quite a bit on American Television. These channels score zeros all round, leaving them with overall scores of a big, fat, round 0.

Now lets move onto channels such as BBC News 24, Sky News, CNBC, ITN News Channel, EuroNews, Bloomberg, Star News, Sky Sports News, and EuroSport News. Channels like these score very well on the ‘inform’ category, with perhaps an odd point or two in the ‘educate’ category. They may also unintentionally entertain, but that is not their purpose. Channels such as the sports channels, Sky Sports, EuroSport, The Racing Channel, Extreme Sports and Go Barking Mad, score highly on entertainment and may score some points on the inform side as well.

Music channels score highly in the entertainment sector, but only one channel, MTV, scores well in the inform and possibly also gains a point in the educate sector. Most multi-channels are like this, even the movie channels, such as Zee Cinema, Sky Premier, TCM, B4U and Sky Moviemax amongst others. They score highly in one sector, with possible low scores in others. These channels are not heavily commercial and do fulfil something public-service wise, but they do not fulfil the entire public service commitment, nor are they ever likely to.

The only channels that even really comes close to providing a schedule that satisfies multiple public service commitments are the general entertainment channels and the Documentary channels. General Entertainment channels such as Sky One, E4, BBC Choice, Tara, Zee TV, Star Plus, the big 5 terrestrial channels and others. These will always score highly in entertainment, and score well in the ‘inform’ category too, with varying scores in the ‘educate’ category. The documentary channels, such as the Discovery channels, the National Geographic channels, and UK Horizons, score well in the ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ categories but also can score well in ‘entertain’ too.

There are some entertainment channels that don’t score as highly as the General Entertainment channels. The classic entertainment services don’t score highly in ‘educate’ or ‘inform’, whilst some specialist entertainment channels such as Fashion TV and Game Network score low on each category because of their specialism. Ok, you say, what about differences between premium channels, primary channels and free channels? Well, basically, what they charge for their output has no effect on how their programming rates.

Overall, there is more of a perception of a drop in standards than has actually happened, although it has to be said, that if you’d compared BBC-1, BBC-2 or ITV with their counterparts of 20 years ago, and you would see about a one or two point drop in some areas, and indeed in overall scores. The perception of lower quality and less public service is perhaps more to do with the fact that with far more channels these days, the best programming is spread out far more thinly than it ever was. Public Service Broadcasting in the UK is far from being dead or dying, but there is a decline in progress, and if that decline is not halted, then we may be hearing more alarm bells from the public, sooner or later.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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