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The Future of Public Broadcasting and Telecommunications: Richards sets out PSB agenda

12th November 2008

Ed Richards, Chief Executive of Ofcom, has asserted that support for PSB remains as strong as ever among British audiences, despite opinions that the system has lost most of its relevance in the transition from the analogue past to the digital future. The urgent matter, he said, is to develop solutions to ensure PSB retains it core qualities as it shifts to digital format: It must continue to offer plural content and sustain diverse providers with the BBC at the centre. Mr. Richards stressed that any solution must also address seriously the structural funding problems that currently plague other broadcasters. On this issue, he denied that Ofcom was in favour of 'top-slicing' the BBC's licence fee to generate funds for financially-strapped providers like Channel 4.

Calling this a "sticking plaster solution", he said BBC partnerships with competing broadcasters might offer deeper, longer-term remedies to funding issues. In order for these PSB partnerships to work, he stated, they would have to be large enough to guarantee broad reach but, at the same time, preserve the autonomy of the broadcasters teaming up with the BBC and up-hold fair competitive behaviour. The Ofcom chief executive also admitted that he believes firmly in the notion of a 'public service provider' a body that would distribute public service funding to disparate platforms, but that it has to be adapted to a full digital media strategy to survive in the future. With new media technologies like the Internet taking up ever larger shares of audience attention, the impact of public service content will decline rapidly if provision remains limited to linear TV.

According to Mr. Richards, broadcasters must quickly re-define their alleged purposes within this changing environment so that public service provision can capitalize on new technology rather than fail because of it. Top of Mr. Richards' list of broadcasters that need to be clearer on the kind of public service content they wish to provide is the BBC. While it is not the only player with stakes in the digital future, its position figures front and centre in debates over the roles and limits of PSB in the new media environment. This report by Chris Greenaway. You can read the Polis Director's report on the event at www.charliebeckett.org|.