Bad idea, good timing? 

8 April 2008

The only surprise is, surely, what took them so long, namely Ofcom finally conceding defeat when its ‘public service publisher’ idea was predictably scrapped in March 2008. A recent change of Culture Secretary could have triggered the 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).

In addition, 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, but within the media industry.

Indeed some of the more vocal critics of the PSP proposal had dubbed it the “Nathan Barley Quango” (referring to a fictional character of a short-lived Channel 4 comedy series that parodied web startup companies), and such a comparison was perhaps appropriate given a lack of clear focus that seemed apparent at the time.

However was this harsh criticism entirely fair or over the top given the possibly unfinished nature of the original proposal? Maybe Ofcom made a mistake in the way that such ideas were packaged in the first place, but Ed Richards seemed pretty determined to continue with the idea even when critics were picking holes in the original framework.

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 applying such a measure across the board 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 also to 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.

Then there’s the matter of the timing of the withdrawal ‘announcement’. The public withdrawal of the proposal happened merely two days before Channel 4 likewise announced its “Next on 4” initiative that just happened to do something that wasn’t that far removed from Ofcom’s PSP idea, albeit in a less radical and less risky form.

Some people within the media industry may have bemoaned the prospect of one of the existing broadcasters (namely, Channel 4) carrying out a PSP-style plan as opposed to a totally new and independent commissioning body, but having Channel 4 do the work instead is a far less riskier option and guarantees a sizeable audience from Day 1.

Whatever the outcome for public service broadcasting in the future, at least Andy Duncan and Channel 4 realised that the way forward for the broadcaster was within the realm of public service broadcasting as opposed to the fully commercial vision that predecessor Mark Thompson had indicated before moving to the BBC.

It’s moderately unlikely that a public service attitude was adopted on purely commercial terms, since Channel 4 would have been an attractive takeover target if it was made a fully commercial entity (especially whilst Big Brother is still worth something and its E4 channel does a good job at attracting that much-coveted teenage audience).

Purely measured on its initial impact, the “Next on 4” proposal seemed to make all the right noises both within the media industry and even more importantly with politicians. It appeared to be an unwritten rule within the media industry that Channel 4 was the best solution to the PSP problem, but nobody wanted to force it into doing something.

Not forcing an existing public service broadcaster into additional commitments was perhaps an important reason behind Ofcom’s original proposal of establishing a new publisher (as well as the ideological element), but as a side effect this reluctance also conspires to make Ofcom look even worse on paper as a regulator.

Perhaps more importantly – and as an undocumented side effect of Channel 4’s proposal – it takes the heat off the BBC in relation to either having to further support the independent producer market or having its licence fee clipped to support some form of independent PSP (since Channel 4 is too large to be supported by the licence fee alone).

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 pre-empting 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 Transdiffusion Presentation

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