Public service broadcasting has been a powerful cultural force in Britain for more than 80 years, but broadcasters now face unprecedented competition from global online players. The communications regulator is updating rules to ensure the continuing prominence of public service channels in programme guides and recommending new rules to ensure their programmes and players are clearly visible on internet-connected devices. Implementing its proposals could prove problematic.

“Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world,” said Kevin Bakhurst, who is responsible for content and media policy at the communications regulator Ofcom. “But they’re facing unprecedented challenges from competition and new technology.

“So, we are ensuring their channels remain easy to find on TV guides and convening a national debate on the future of public service media — including how we safeguard its benefits for future generations.”

Ofcom has updated rules to ensure that public service channels — BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 — are prominent and easy to find within on-screen programme guides. It is also setting minimum levels of prominence for other BBC channels, such as CBeebies and BBC News, and local television services.

The regulator is also recommending that the government establishes new rules to ensure that public service programming is clearly visible on major viewing platforms, such as smart televisions, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. To be covered, broadcasters would need to deliver an appropriate range of high-quality public service programming.

Framing and enforcing that legislation could be problematic.

Ofcom recommends that the initial focus should be on connected televisions, including smart televisions and those connected by a set-top box, stick or dongle. Viewers should be able to find public service programming easily on the home screen, including both their traditional channels and on-demand services. It suggests that one practical approach could be to have a single public service broadcaster portal or ’tile’ through which all of their players are made available.

Such programming should also be given protected prominence within recommendations and search results, Ofcom suggests.

There may need to be new obligations to ensure the continued availability of public service programming to viewers on demand, equivalent to the existing “must offer” and “must carry” rules for public service broadcaster channels.

Ofcom suggests that for an availability obligation to be effective would require a backstop mechanism to determine terms if commercial negotiations fail. Such an approach has hardly proved uncontroversial elsewhere.

The new framework should not be limited to user interfaces from providers based in the United Kingdom but should apply to all television platforms used by viewers in the United Kingdom as one of the main ways to access television content.

It suggests that the cost of regulation could be met by a fee levied on providers that notify the regulator that they are providing services within the scope of the new framework.

To frame and inform its policy, Ofcom is launching a nationwide Small Screen: Big Debate forum, involving discussions with broadcasters, production companies, government, parliament, industry bodies and viewer groups. The debate will need to address questions such as where public service programming should be available in the future, who should provide it and how to guarantee a mix of high-quality programming online.

Defining public service programming has been problematic since broadcasting began. It will be all the more difficult in an era of virtually limitless choice of online viewing.

In a world of individual player apps, which broadcasters have embraced, it is hard to see how it will be possible or practical to impose regulatory rules of prominence about how they should be presented.

Ultimately, prominence will be dependent upon broadcasters providing programming that people want to watch, a process that has so far worked reasonably effectively.