Ofcom: UK PSBs should form single digital platform

Ofcom chief executive Sharon White (pictured) has called on the UK public service broadcasters (PSBs) to launch a single digital platform, urging the BBC to take a lead on forming the required partnerships.

Speaking at Freeview’s Outside the Box event in London yesterday, the head of the UK broadcast regulator struck a note of “cautious optimism” against the backdrop of economic and technological change in the TV industry.

Along with her call for the PSBs to collaborate and combine their content, White also stressed the value of local content and suggested that a ‘PSB button’ on the TV remote could be a possible solution to the long-term question PSB prominence in a digital age.

On the collaboration front, White said that a common digital platform, bringing together the content available on each of the PSB’s individual on-demand services – BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 – would make it easier for viewers to access content across a range of devices with a single login.

By taking this approach, she argued that the PSBs would reach more people, share data that could provide “unprecedented insights for investors, commissioners and advertisers”, and be at the forefront of “the technological revolution that is transforming TV”.

“Our broadcasters would need to reconcile their varied brands, audiences and funding models. Some say it cannot be done, but many said the same of Freeview when it launched in 2002. Yet Freeview turned out to be the fastest-growing electronics product in UK history,” said White.

“Nobody can question our broadcasters’ aptitude to innovate. But at the moment, they are taking different paths. The BBC is planning more box-sets for the iPlayer. That could affect other broadcasters’ ability to compete, so the BBC must examine its impact properly and transparently.”

White advocated for a combined PSB service would act as a single destination across smart TVs, phones and digital devices. She also pointed out that the BBC had successfully partnered with ITV on their joint US streaming service BritBox.

“As the national broadcaster, we’d expect the BBC to take the lead on forming such partnerships as it has done successfully to date. For our part, Ofcom has to be a forward-looking regulator that supports the future success of UK TV, firmly rooted in the online world.”

Discussing the future of programming itself, White underlined the importance of UK-produced shows that authentically reflect the diversity of Britain, and said now is the time to embrace, not fear ‘the FAANGs’.

“Netflix has opened a commissioning base in London, with Paris and Madrid to follow. Amazon and YouTube are adopting similar strategies. But if they want to commission programmes that are authentically British, these US firms will need to draw on the public-service traditions, regional bases and world-class talent that drive the content UK viewers demand.”

White said the UK TV industry can tap into this demand to extract more international funding and establish an “even greater presence on the world stage,” citing recent co-productions like the BBC and Netflix’s adaptation of Dracula and Amazon and the BBC’s take on King Lear.

Finally, White addressed the question of PSB prominence, which is currently subject to review. Ofcom recently held an industry consultation on the matter and is due to advise the government next year on how prominence might be made to work in an online world.

“Certainly, any new legislation would have to be based on principles that weren’t locked to a particular technology,” she said. “Who knows. A ‘PSB button’ might be vying for space next to Netflix and YouTube on the television remote control.”

White’s speech was made at the same event where Freeview unveiled its new “one-stop-shop” app for UK content. Due to launch in January, the free-to-use app will let viewers stream live channels from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 and access on-demand content from BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, and UKTV Play.

Announcing the launch, Jonathan Thompson, CEO of Digital UK, the organisation that leads the development of Freeview, argued that the Freeview mobile app is “an excellent example of broadcaster and industry collaboration in action” – albeit one that does not go as far as the shared digital service that White envisages.

The Ofcom chief has previously spoken in favour of PSB collaboration, though yesterday’s intervention was her most specific call-to-action to date. At a conference in March this year White said: “Our PSBs may increasingly need to join forces to increase their bargaining power, just as they are doing with TV manufacturers. Increasingly, they will need to collaborate to compete.”

To read Sharon White’s speech in full, click here.

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