WE ARE PERHAPS not the best country to use as an example of good public service provision. As our railways have been in a state of collapse, our roads give way to gridlock, and our hospitals struggle to cope, we might sometimes wonder if there is much in the public sector that we can get right in Britain.
Still, one field in which the UK has been historically strong has been in broadcasting. You don’t have to travel far to realise that TV and radio services around the globe are of a pretty poor standard compared to here in the UK.
This is because broadcasting resources have been scarce, and have traditionally been rationed by government. While there was only room for four or five television channels, it was decided that these should be allocated carefully, with the BBC providing two of the TV services paid for by the license fee – an early form of poll tax. Even one of the commercial TV channels, Channel 4, is not a private company but is actually a self-governing public corporation, with a remit to provide a wide range of public service broadcasting. The other two commercial channels are also seriously constrained; regulators can still tell them what to do, as shown by the forced return next week of ITV’s News at Ten.
But this world is changing, dramatically, by the relentless development of information technology. Digital convergence means that television and radio signals can now be stored and distributed just like any other computer files. Digital cable and satellite broadcasting services can now provide hundreds of channels, and telephone and cable TV companies are busy upgrading their networks to provide, in effect, unlimited quantities of radio and TV programmes.
So what future will there be for public service broadcasting when the number of channels in most homes is not five, but five hundred? The Government published a white paper last month on the future of both the telecommunications and broadcasting industries. The ‘alphabet soup’ of regulators (BSC, RA, ITC, RCA etc) is to be replaced by a new single watchdog, called the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and the powers for this new body are being described as a ‘light touch’. Lots of restrictions are to be stripped away including the limit to the number of ITV stations which can be controlled by a single company. It now seems inevitable that the two giant companies which dominate ITV in the UK, Granada and Carlton, will eventually merge to form a single major ITV supplier.
The white paper really doesn’t take any account of devolution, since both telecommunications and broadcasting are areas reserved for Westminster. Many observers expect that Scottish Media Group, the owners of Scottish TV and Grampian TV, will ultimately be bought by Granada, which already owns a significant minority stake in SMG. Strangely, the possibility of losing Scotland’s only indigenous television company has raised very little comment.
The public service broadcasters, BBC and Channel4 have begun to prepare for the digital future by developing new complementary services. Tonight, Channel 4 launches E4, its new entertainment channel, and Greg Dyke, the director-general of the BBC used the Edinburgh TV Festival last year to announce that the BBC will soon launch BBC3, BBC4 and two new children’s services. BBC3 will be entertainment led and aimed at the 16-35 age group, whereas BBC4 will be relatively highbrow – a ‘mixture of Radio 3 and 4 on TV’.
It is interesting to note the reaction to announcements such as E4, BBC3 and the new children’s services. Broadcasters are being accused of ‘dumbing-down’ and behaving overly commercially, as if broadcasting entertainment services should be left solely to the commercial sector and public service broadcasters should stick to worthy dramas and documentaries. This is an odd argument – young adults are also members of the public, and surely our children deserve to be provided with UK channels containing original UK material – not just endless diets of cheap American cartoons.
But, strangely, the debate that is not happening is about broadcasting in Scotland. Wales has a dedicated welsh-language channel. Ireland supports three television services, even though it is a smaller country than Scotland. Surely, as we enter the 500-channel world, we should find room for one or two television services that reflect our own culture – and not just as odd opt-outs of the network service.
But there is a lesson in the UK tradition of public-service initiatives. Just as in the rest of the UK’s broadcasting world, Scottish channels will not happen by themselves. They will only emerge if there is a political will to make them happen.
Ian Ritchie is a director of Channel 4 Television. These views are his own.