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Ofcom Questions Whether YouTube and Netflix Can Provide PSB-Like Content

Tim Cross  06 January, 2021

The UK’s communications regulator Ofcom today announced that it will start asking audiences about how well the likes of YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video provide public service broadcaster (PSB) style content. Given recent questions about PSBs’ role in the UK, and whether they’re even necessary at all (with rumours of Channel 4 being sold off and the ‘Defund the BBC’ social media campaign) Ofcom’s findings might shape government legislation around PSBs.

The changes appear in Ofcom’s PSB Tracking survey, an annual public survey gauging audiences’ attitudes towards PSBs. The survey asks questions about how much respondents engage with each PSB (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5), and how well they fulfil their obligations around providing certain types of content and reflecting UK culture.

Ofcom suspended the survey last year, in order to rethink and redesign the questions.

As part of the update, there will now be a new section covering non-PSB video content providers, and the extent to which they offer content with “PSB-like attributes”. There will also be new questions tracking consumption of online media services which audiences use alongside PSBs.

Ofcom has not outlined the specific reasoning behind the change, other than saying the new questions will reflect the “ever-changing marketplace”.

Given recent statements made by Ofcom, the change appears significant. Ofcom maintains that PSBs play an important role describing them as “valued institutions” at the end of last year. But the regulator is also blunt about the challenges facing PSBs, warning that they won’t survive without radical changes.

Ofcom proposed last year that new providers could be appointed to deliver public service content in the future, focussing on specific groups of people or types of programme. Ofcom said new providers could offer different skills, expertise and online experience from existing PSB. The regulator also proposed wider legal reforms to help protect and preserve the PSBs.

Ofcom’s survey would help identify which third-party providers are well placed to deliver PSB-style content, and which could be commissioned to help support existing PSBs.

But on the flip-side, if the survey finds that consumers don’t differentiate much between PSBs and other broadcasters and video providers, and that PSB-style content is already adequately provided by other companies, it might strengthen the case of those calling for PSBs to lose their protected status. And if the government feels PSBs no longer play such a value role, it could prevent passage of legislation designed to protect and maintain them.

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