The BBC believes that the Covid-19 pandemic has illuminated the continuing value of public service broadcasting.
The decline of public service broadcasting has been one of those long running narratives that is sometimes defied by reality, like the death of the set top box.
It is true that premium sports content has been leaking away from public channels to subscription TV for almost two decades now with long term consequences for society as well as PSBs (Public Service Broadcasters) themselves. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the continuing importance of PSBs for provision of universal access and services such as online education that the big streamers cannot or will not deliver.
Recent viewing trends have also underlined the value of both audience analytics and advanced immersive techniques for identifying attractive or popular content, and then presenting it in a compelling way. Examples of content made by PSBs for national audiences that then achieved global success predate the pandemic, especially but not exclusively on the documentary front.
Among such examples is The Write-Offs, a series about adult literacy produced by commercial PSB Channel 4 in the UK, which after winning accolades in the UK more surprisingly sold well globally by identifying issues of wider interest.
Another example is You Can’t Ask That, first aired in 2016 by PSB ABC in Australia, based on questioning minority groups on delicate or controversial subjects that viewers might like to ask but would be embarrassed to do so directly. This again went on to achieve global success outside Australia for similar reasons.
Such successes appeared serendipitous and were hard to predict, but now PSBs are resorting to the same audience analytics that global streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu have engaged in for some years, in order to identify the sort of content likely to enjoy wider success.
These experiences are also encouraging PSBs to collaborate across borders in order to make content with wider appeal, especially in Europe. France Televisions has just launched such an initiative with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a representative body of over 100 PSBs across the continent and other neighboring countries, including the UK’s BBC, ARD in Germany, Rai in Italy, Spain’s RTVE, Channel One in Russia and the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation. This appears to have been inspired by Manuel Alduy, who in January 2021 took over as head of cinema and international development at France Televisions.
Under this collaboration, France Televisions will lead in identifying fiction-based entertainment series based on submitted scripts, then inviting other EBU member PSBs to join in a 30-day window as co-producers.
“It’s a sort of first-look process that we are launching with the EBU and we have set up a dedicated workshop for this,” said Alduy, quoted in Variety magazine, adding that France Televisions was currently selecting two or three projects to kick off with. “The idea is that members of the EBU will have 30 days to position themselves. It will begin with a brief pitch or concept, then two weeks later we will provide more developed pitch for the project, and at the end of the 30 days we will see who’s interested and how much can be invested,” Alduy added.
Some PSBs are also engaging directly with global streamers on the basis that if you can’t beat them, join them. The BBC has struck a five-year partnership with Netflix to develop and fund British dramas from disabled writers. The two are inviting pitches from UK producers for dramas at least partly created by writers who identify as deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent.
While the future looks brighter than it did for PSBs in the factual and entertainment series areas, the picture remains bleaker when it comes to premium sports. Major sports have been migrating from PSBs to pay TV for over two decades in some markets, and while this has generated untold riches for the very top sports such as association football and basketball, it has been less successful for sports that are slightly less popular or more localized, such as cricket which only enjoys blockbuster appeal in India.
Manuel Alduy took over as head of cinema and international development at France Televisions in January 2021.
This seepage of premium sports from Free to Air (FTA) channels to pay TV, whether linear or online, has also had cultural ramifications, as research carried out by Ampere Analysis for Eurovision Sport has just revealed. The report noted that only one in three sports fans across Europe can now access premium sports channels, also pointing to the threadbare coverage on FTA channels of the recent Tokyo Olympics in many countries, after Discovery purchased the majority of live rights, having paid €1.3 billion.
The report confirmed the dichotomy of impact between the very top and second tier sports. The UEFA Champions League for example is a major driver of subscriptions towards pay TV, but fans of slightly less popular competitions such as World Athletics events were less inclined to pay. The upshot was declining audiences and popularity for some of these sports, polarizing viewing around those top tier leagues.
By the same token, the trend has had a detrimental impact on women’s sports, because as yet these have not succeeded in attracting the blockbuster audiences of men’s association football for example. This has had negative ramifications at grassroots level, with women less likely to take up competitive sport because the sale of major events to subscription TV platforms has reduced the availability of top-level action viewers can see for free, according to the report.
Possible remedies include compelling pay TV providers to make some of the content for all these sports available FTA, which some have started doing anyway. In the UK Sky made the final of the Cricket 2019 One Day World Cup available FTA even though it was not obliged to do so. The operator was motivated by the positive publicity but also by the realization that national audiences needed priming with some blanket coverage to sustain general interest in traditional sports that, while not necessarily second tier, are nonetheless fail to have as much pulling power for subscriptions.
PSBs are often left having to maximize impact of sports highlights packages, and this is where immersive viewing technology can play a key role engaging fans. Some PSBs were early to appreciate the importance of advanced graphics technology, as the BBC was in developing its Piero systems first deployed for the Match of the Day association football highlights package in 2004. Since then the image processing algorithms have been regularly enhanced and can now highlight and track football players, draw off-side lines on the pitch, and generate virtual views of the action from positions where real cameras are not available or could never be placed. This has helped Match of the Day retain a substantial audience, aided by the live matches being mostly confined to pay TV but also by the ability of presenters to analyse the action with greater clarity, able now to present “what if” scenarios.
This all comes at a time many countries are reassessing the role of PSBs and their funding, as traditional license fee income continues to decline in real terms. The conclusion is often that PSBs will continue to play a key role in universal access to common broadcasting genres such as news and indeed sports to some extent, but will have to juggle between linear and online delivery until such time as adequate broadband connectivity is available almost everywhere. This was one finding of the report, Public service broadcasting: still relevant? published by the UK Parliament earlier in 2021.
The report concluded that “at some point in the future it seems likely that public service broadcasting will be delivered, or at least be universally accessible, via the internet, but that is not the reality we confront today. Approximately 190,000 premises in the UK do not have access to a “decent” broadband service, either from a fixed connection or from a wireless network.”
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