Raymond Snoddy on media: Ofcom is guilty of £300m moment of madness

In its programme for the future of public service broadcasting, Ofcom has managed to avoid most of the daft ideas out there in the ether - but not all.

The regulatory body, which is stuffed full of more clever analytical thinkers than you could shake a stick at, has recognised the importance of a licence fee-funded BBC going forward, underlined the importance of ITV as a public service broadcaster in the long term and wisely shown the door to contestable funding schemes run by a new bureaucracy.

It has managed to pick its way carefully around any number of fashionable gimmicks - except one.

It is almost as if this team of great thinkers got bored with self-restraint and thought, damn it, we must include something a little risque in this document. How else will we get a decent headline or two? 'BBC to retain licence fee in digital age' doesn't really do it, and for all that money, the 'stakeholders', as they are known in the regulatory trade, expect a bit of imagination.

At least one totally outlandish proposal had to be included at the last minute to maintain interest in the third episode of the PSB review later this year. In this case, it takes the form of a proposed public service publisher (PSP) focusing on new technologies and distribution systems, such as digital TV, mobile phones and broadband at an annual cost of £300m.

It may seem daft to suddenly throw in this £300m, coming from God knows where, to fund three hours of quality drama a night for video mobiles.

But one has to believe Ofcom is far too clever to believe such a thing is either necessary, likely or practical. As the football commentators say when nothing of importance is happening: 'Now that's a real talking point.'

The talking point here - that this competitive, publicly funded PSP should be launched by 2012 - will keep everyone happy for the next few months.

That is, until Tessa Jowell unaccountably fails to include the wheeze in the upcoming Green Paper. It can then quietly be axed, with Ofcom getting top marks for deep thinking and no harm done.

There is a worry that Ofcom is serious about the idea, far-fetched though it seems. What the hell, let's join in and treat it seriously, even though is is probably only teasing. If it is serious, the certainty with which Ofcom announces that the present system 'will not survive' the transition to digital and may 'erode rapidly prior to 2012' is a concern.

It would be nice to know what crystal ball Ofcom has enabling it to call the outcome with such mathematical certainty. What if the terrestrial commercial channels continue to assemble the biggest audiences to sell to advertisers? This is conceivable, given the fact that 85% of viewing in Freeview homes goes to terrestrial channels.

Ofcom is also more than a touch disingenuous in claiming it has rejected top-slicing of the BBC licence fee while proposing £300m a year for a competing service. It is wildly optimistic to suggest that any government would throw in this money for PSP without some of it, if not all, coming from BBC licence-fee allocation in some form.

Even if it is necessary, there are more serious questions about the impact that three hours of programming a day would have on a plethora of channels, and how it is to be distributed. Think of the marketing costs alone.

Would people really watch one-hour programmes on their mobile phones? Will broadband become an entertainment medium, as opposed to a technology devoted to web searches and transactions? Senior executives at media giant Time Warner certainly don't believe so.

Ofcom should focus on simpler, more practical ways of bolstering PSB - once it has got over its rush of blood to the head. It's a task that shouldn't be beyond it.


- Last week Ofcom published the second phase of its statutory review of public service broadcasting (PSB).

- It recognised the 'increasing importance of a strong, independent, fully-funded and public service-focused BBC funded by 'the licence fee model'.

- Channel 4 is seen as a 'critical second provider of PSB' to remain as a primarily not-for-profit, free-to-air broadcaster.

- ITV1 should play to its strengths in PSB, contributing through high-quality, UK-originated production.

- Ofcom also proposed a concept to stimulate innovation and plurality: a public service publisher (PSP).

- Bids for the PSP, which will operate as a content producer and commissioner, could come from current broadcasters (except the BBC), media companies, independent producers or infrastructure operators, or a consortium of such companies.

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