Public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom is facing an existential threat. That is the view of Sir Peter Bazalgette, the former chair of ITV. The commercial broadcaster, which is betting its future on its ITVx online strategy, will soon have to decide whether to apply to renew its public service licence, which gives it access to broadcast spectrum and still delivers most of its revenue.
Peter Bazalgette stepped down as the non-executive chair of the leading commercial broadcaster in the United Kingdom at the end of September 2022, after six years in the role.
In his first public speech since leaving ITV, he questioned how public service media companies can survive in an era when their services are delivered online over global platforms.
Online services like the BBC iPlayer, the imminent ITVx, and All4 are all obliged to negotiate carriage with the likes of Amazon, Apple, Samsung, and LG, as well as Sky and Virgin.
“These are all powerful, foreign-owned platforms who can take shares of PSM revenue and withhold PSM viewer data, in the largely unregulated arena of the internet. In the digital age if you have no data, you have no business.”
Ironically, Sir Peter was speaking online, delivering the annual Jocelyn Hay Lecture for the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, named in honour of the founder of the organisation that has championed the debate about the importance of public service broadcasting.
The white paper published in April set out the vision of the government for the broadcasting sector. Discussion of this has been rather overtaken by political events. The unpopular proposal to sell off Channel 4 now seems less of a political priority.
The former chair of ITV described it as “a damaging distraction from the thing that really matters :– prominence in the internet age”.
For ITV, as it prepares to launch its ITVx online proposition, there is the question of whether to apply for a new public service media licence in 2023 to start in 2024, without knowing now what the terms might be.
While the internet will increasingly dominate, Sir Peter said we should definitely keep digital terrestrial television for the foreseeable future, as a matter of national resilience. He cited the critical messages delivered during the coronavirus crisis as an example and the threat to the internet of war in Europe.
“The international infrastructure of our digital age is one of its greatest boons, also one of its greatest vulnerabilities,” he said. “It would be a foolish government indeed that surrendered an alternative information network.”
He suggested the need for greater co-operation, or even consolidation, among public service media organisations in order to thrive in the era of powerful international online players. He also called for continued dedicated funding for the BBC.
“The fact that there is guaranteed public funding for an organisation whose remit is specifically to hold the government to account, seems to be the most laudable expression of a liberal democracy that I can think of,” he said. “Let’s not throw it away.”
In conclusion, Sir Peter suggested that public service media is needed in the internet age more than ever.
The full text of the Jocelyn Hay Lecture 2022 by Sir Peter Bazalgette is available on the Voice of the Listener and Viewer web site.