Public service broadcasting (PSB) is facing an existential crisis and needs to “find new ways to engage with the beast [they] are confronted with” according to a panel of TV experts at this year’s Edinburgh TV Festival.
The contentious topic opened the three-day event, which will feature some of TVs biggest players as well as stars including Succession’s Brian Cox and Strictly winner and ex-EastEnders star Rose Ayling-Ellis.
As the official broadcast partner of the festival, Sky News will bring exclusive coverage on mobile, TV and podcast, and broadcast the prestigious MacTaggart lecture, hosted by Emily Maitlis, live.
This will be available to view here, and you can watch the keynote speech on the Sky News website and apps at 6.15pm.
Focusing squarely on the political questions around the future of public service broadcasting, creative leader and former BBC chief creative officer Pat Younge told Sky News “the main challenges British broadcasters face at the moment in terms of the BBC and Channel 4 is the government”.
Speaking in the session, he said we are dealing with a “post-truth, post-evidence government who are just tearing up the rule book”, adding, “we need to find new ways to engage with the beast that we’re confronted with”.
However, speaking in a later session BBC chairman Richard Sharp, told the festival he “will deal with government interference”, insisting “they value the BBC”.
Sharp, who is a former banker and prominent Tory party donor, was interviewed by actor David Harewood. He became BBC chairman in 2021.
Calling the broadcaster “one of our greatest export industries” and “perhaps our leading global brand”, Sharp said he has engaged with critics within the government “to understand where they’re coming from”.
Pointing to what he called a “BBC bias” he said some ministers believe it’s an “outrage they should fund an organisation that opposes them”. He also spoke about the free market, which he said “should allow people should pay for what they want to watch”.
The government have called the licence fee “completely outdated”, and say they want to find a new funding model before the current deal expires in 2027.
The licence fee will remain fixed at £159 until April 2024, and then rise in line with inflation for the following four years, up to the end of the current Royal Charter on 31 December 2027.
While talks with the department of digital, culture, media and sport began earlier this year, All3Media CEO Jane Turton told the festival it was “difficult to talk about what was achieved” in the discussions.
Alternative funding models for PSBs which have been discussed include subscription models, advertising and a broadband levy.
Speaking about the licence fee in his session, BBC chairman Richard Sharp said: “We are reviewing all alternatives, and we haven’t yet come to a conclusion… It’s up to parliament on behalf of the people to decide. We’ve been asked to look at all the alternatives and we are.”
He went on to say: “It starts with a purpose… And you work with funding that supports that”.
Speaking about the possibility of hybrid solutions, he pointed to UKTV and Dave) as potential funding models. Dave is a British free-to-air television channel owned by UKTV, a subsidiary of BBC Studios.
Sharp said that while he felt Sky and Disney were supportive around the BBC’s current battle for survival, he felt Netflix were less so.
He also highlighted the success of the BBC iPlayer, which he called “world class”, comparing it to Netflix’s platform, and saying “I believe we can compete”.
Away from the BBC licence fee, Channel 4 – which is owned by the government but funded by advertising – is facing potential privatisation.
The government has argued that Channel 4’s long-term future needs to be secured amid concerns for its survival in the streaming era, with Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries saying its ownership is holding it back.
And it’s not just political issues troubling the PSBs. There have been massive shifts in behaviour as a younger audiences turn away from traditional TV viewing, watching more short and medium form content on streaming, on-demand and social video services.
Counter intuitively, a younger generation may be benefitting from the legacy of PBSs, while not necessarily realising it.
Recent OFCOM findings show that people aged 16-24 spend less than an hour (53 minutes) in front of broadcast TV in an average day – a fall of two-thirds in the last ten years.
Streaming giants are exacerbating the TV generation gap, creating a stark divide in the viewing habits of younger and older people.
But while younger viewers are watching content such as Peaky Blinders on Netflix, they no longer attribute it to its parent broadcaster, the BBC.
Speaking about Peaky Blinders Banijay CEO Patrick Holland told the festival audience, “shows like this are big and bold and speak to a young audience as well as a broad audience, which is key”.
Holland also flagged the generation gap – saying broadcasters needed to create content for younger audience and double down on funding programming for those audience.
So, the question remains, what can the PSBs do better?
Wonderhood Studios co-founder David Abraham highlighted the success the Women’s Euro 2022 and the power of TV to bring nation together.
He said it was a moment largely created by the BBC’s decision to “go big” on the games, pushing the women’s sports agenda, which paid off in bucket-loads.
In a rare moment of agreement between the sessions, BBC chairman Richard Sharp also flagged the event, saying the broadcaster “took a risk in pushing women’s football which translated into 17 million people coming together to watch England play”.
Naked managing director Fatima Salaria said that broadcasters “must be braver and take risks. Tell diverse range of stories. We need to set the agenda.”
While Jane Turton said we need to “reframe what success looks like for PSB”.
Turton also said she felt there was value in making more content for British audiences. This would be a marked departure from the approach of many of the streaming giants who frequently focus on shows with a more global appeal.
Concluding the session, Turton also shared a prosaic view of the sometimes romanticised role of creating compelling TV, saying: “We’re a business, we’re selling shows”.
The Edinburgh Television Festival 2022 will run from Wednesday 24 August to Friday 26 August, with Sky News as its official media partner.