Traditional broadcasting in the United Kingdom is unlikely to survive in the online world unless broadcasting laws and regulation are overhauled and broadcasters speed up their transformation for the digital age. That is the warning from the Small Screen; Big Debate review of public service broadcasting by the national communications regulator Ofcom. One in four viewers of online video services says that within five years they can imagine watching no broadcast television at all.

The review found that public service programming still matters to people and to society. The public service broadcasters also contribute nearly £3 billion a year to the creative economy in the United Kingdom. Yet audiences are increasing turning away from the traditional channels from the BBC, ITV, STV, S4C, Channel 4 and Channel 5, in favour of global online services.

“Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world,” said Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom. “But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.

“For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules and build a stronger system of public-service media that can flourish in the digital age.

“That could mean big changes, such as a wider range of firms tasked with providing high-quality shows made for, in and about the UK.”

Ofcom suggests that laws and regulation must be overhauled in order to preserve the benefits of public service broadcasting.

The rules and laws around public service broadcasting largely date from when the internet was still in its infancy and they remain focused on traditional broadcasting. Without radical changes to support the shift from traditional broadcasting to online, the challenges facing them may become acute.

Ofcom is calling for a new framework to establish clear goals for public service broadcasters, with greater choice over how they achieve them, and quotas to safeguard vital areas such as news. Companies should be required to set out, measure and report on their plans, with Ofcom holding them to account. It is also inviting views on changes to rules that will ensure PSB content is carried on different online platforms.

There is also the suggestion that other companies could become public service media providers, possibly with a focus on specific groups of people or types of programme.

Given funding pressures, public service media needs stable revenues to support creative risk-taking, innovation and efficient long-term planning. The range of suggestions include full or part subscription models. Partnerships, particularly on platforms and distribution, could also help broadcasters compete more effectively with global players.

Ofcom is asking for responses to this consultation to inform its final recommendations to the Government in Summer 2021.

Small Screen: Big Debate Consultation. The Future of Public Service Media is published by Ofcom and available from the Small Screen: Big Debate web site.