Public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom face a fight for survival as they are “hurtling towards a post-broadcast world”. That is the warning from Mark Thompson, the former chief executive of Channel 4, who went on to be director general of the BBC and might have seen this coming.

He went on to become chief executive of The New York Times from 2012 to July 2020, where he saw digital subscriptions pass the five million mark to account for nearly 60% of company revenue.

He told the virtual Small Screen, Big Debate conference, organised by the communications regulator Ofcom, that public service broadcasters had not kept up with the pace of change, while commercial networks risk “losing their soul” as American media companies swallow up their audiences.

“The challenge for the industry’s leaders and Ofcom is to figure out if it’s too late,” he said. “Are you still driving a horse and buggy while the rest of the world is driving cars?”

“Linear channels will be around for many, many years, largely consumed by older people, but still as very important services,” he said. “But the commissioning pounds and control, and the premiering of most of content, needs to be online now.”

In so saying, he was supporting the strategy espoused by Tim Davie, the new director general of the BBC, to move away from commissioning programmes for specific channels to focus on its online iPlayer. “What you can’t do in this world is solely commission for linear,” he recently told a government committee.

Facing financial constraints and increasing competition, the new director general has said: “We are going to look in all areas and identify how we can have more impact by making less”.

It seems to be a strategy satirically parodied by the BBC observational comedy W1A: “The fact is, this is about establishing what we do most of best and finding fewer ways of doing more of it, less”.

“Broadcasting,” notes Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, “like every long-standing industry, is seeing age-old business models undermined.”

“Public service broadcasting faces intense competition. Together, we need to identify what programmes and services matter most to our society, culture and economy. Then we have a change to build a system that keeps the things we cherish, but also benefits from the innovation around us.”

The communications regulator Ofcom staged the three-day virtual conference as part of its Small Screen: Big Debate on the future of public service broadcasting.