It was a bad idea to start with 

12 March 2008

Ofcom scraps ‘public service publisher’ plans

The only surprise was what took them so long, namely Ofcom finally conceding defeat with the (expected) scrapping of the ‘public service publisher’ idea. A recent change of Culture Secretary could have triggered this move, but there again it may have just taken Ofcom this long to realise that it was just a bad idea in the first place.

Granted that it was an original idea of sorts but that’s perhaps the best thing that you could charitably say that was going for it – there were too many question marks hanging over its budget/objectives/intended target audience(s) and the resulting value for money. What could it potentially do that existing government department(s) couldn’t, and why?

The main problem with the original proposal was trying to justify spending money on something that one one hand would have a very limited reach in terms of audience unless it just happened to create the next EastEnders or Hollyoaks, which was exceedingly unlikely given its intended budget (and possible audience).

Plus anything else that was more niche in its nature could potentially fall under the existing category of promotional spend for departments such as health or taxation. And why create another body when either Channel 4 or the BBC could do a similar, better job with their existing economies of scale and abilities to reach the intended audience?

All this talk of public service plurality is a red herring when the real issue boils down to the variety of content provided as opposed to exactly who commissions it, although the plurality issue could just relate to giving a few ‘jobs for the boys’ outside of existing media structures, so to speak, within the media industry.

Maybe preventing broadcasters like Channel 4 from spending more than half their programming budget on commissions from a single production company (Endemol) could be an idea, but an across the board measure applied could have problematic implications for the BBC as well as upsetting ITV and BSkyB in the process.

Then there’s the whole issue of the public subsidy of private broadcasters to also consider, which not only has the potential to upset those broadcasters that don’t participate but could potentially also fall foul of European Union rules designed to prevent private companies being subsidised by governments.

It may be true that all this ‘PSP’ talk has widened the debate on the future of public service broadcasting, but there again the issue has been raised several times recently under different circumstances. So proposing something that turned out to be a bad idea doesn’t exactly reflect too well on Ofcom and Ed Richards.

No matter what you may think about Mark Thompson in relation to the moving of certain BBC departments to Salford, it was actually a clever move in relation to preempting the expected debate over public service broadcasting and plurality by effectively removing the regional issue from the ensuing debate as well as quietening critics north of Watford.

If the BBC didn’t make that grand regional gesture, it would have been very likely that it would have been forcibly split into regional units with the BBC itself having little or no say in the matter. But since that didn’t happen, Ofcom’s Ed Richards was reduced to proposing something else that didn’t stand much of a chance in the first place.

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Saturday 13 August 2022