Proposals for a ‘Public Service Publisher’ to commission digital media for public purposes have been outlined in a new discussion document. Ofcom, the communications regulator for the United Kingdom, has outlined more details of the plan following a series of workshops and is now inviting further feedback.

Among the proposals are suggestions that the so-called ‘PSP’ should commission high-quality audio and video developed for new means of digital distribution other than broadcasting, with an emphasis on participation and collaboration, possibly allowing consumer to re-use material for their own purposes.

Ofcom says it believes that there are valid arguments either for the creation of a new organisation or for the PSP to be linked to an existing media provider, but it has ruled out the BBC on the grounds that it should provide some form of competition. Ofcom also believes that the organisation could be based outside London to encourage diversity of representation and investment in digital media outside the capital.

Ofcom suggests that the PSP “could make a significant impact for an initial budget of between £50 million and £100 million a year”. In comparison, the BBC currently invests over £70 million a year on its web site, which does not take into account the billions that it spends on supporting radio and television programming.

When first proposed, it was suggested that the public service publisher might have a budget of around £300 million a year, which is significantly less than the budget of, say, BBC 2. The much lower figures now mentioned leave room for other subsidies to existing broadcasters, such as Channel 4.

The discussion document includes input from independent producers Anthony Lilley of Magic Lantern and Andrew Chitty of Illumina Digital, who were invited to lead a forum to explore the potential of a public service publisher. They envisage an “Open Media Network — an institution rooted in new media which will deliver new public service values to digital citizens”.

Ironically, an Open Media Network is already available online, providing free and fee-based access to high-quality educational videos and socially conscious programming from non-commercial networks, educational institutions, non-profit and community based organisations. Its partners include PBS, WGBH, KQED and other public television organisations and it is supported by Verisign, which now owns Kontiki and provides the peer-to-peer distribution system that is also employed by major broadcasters in the UK.

The PSP should not of course be confused with the trade mark Sony holds for the PlayStation Portable in categories covering audio video recordings, telecommunications services, and provision of online entertainment.

The concept of a Public Service Publisher was first floated by Ofcom as part of a review of public service broadcasting it completed in 2005. It remains a pet project of the communications regulator in the context of its concern about public service broadcasting.

Under the Communications Act of 2003, Ofcom is required to secure the availability throughout the United Kingdom of a wide range of television and radio services which are both of high quality and calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.

“Our mandate requires us to consider the future of PSB delivery in UK television,” says Ofcom in the consultation document. “However, we believe that the changing market requires our thinking to include areas beyond broadcasting — linear television remains important, and will remain so for some time to come, but it is no longer the only means of getting high-quality audiovisual content to viewers.”

The remit of Ofcom in terms of other types of what it insists on calling ‘content’ are unclear, although the Department of Media, Culture and Sport appears somewhat sympathetic to such suggestions from the regulator.

Ofcom argues that “the rationale for intervention in support of public service content is likely to remain in the digital media world”. It suggests that “although public service content will be provided by the market, it may well not be enough either in terms of quantity or diversity”.

Whether funding of the order now envisaged by Ofcom will be sufficient to make any significant impact remains debatable.

The Ofcom proposals are contained in a discussion document on A new approach to public service content in the digital media age which is available on their web site. Although not intended as a formal policy consultation, Ofcom welcomes comments and responses on the issues it raises.