British Television Has Dumbed-Down, Accuses Regulator

23 April 2004

Just three months into its oversight duties, the UK's new media and telecommunications regulator Ofcom has lambasted the nation's television companies. Perhaps not word for word as stated in our headline, but the essence of the watchdog's criticism is exactly that.

Phase one of Ofcom's Review of Public Service Broadcasting, published Thursday, takes the view that British TV is becoming less innovative and narrower in its focus, with arts and current affairs programmes shunted from their former prime time slots.

The regulator also notes that spending on arts, children's, religious and educational programmes has fallen over the past five years.

Broadcasters were accused of playing it safe. And while displaying an "innovative approach" to new programme formats, the actual number of new shows launched each year has fallen.

Some viewers would question Ofcom's definition of an "innovative approach", instead noting on their screens a torrent of tried, tested (and frequently tired) old formats dressed in new clothes.

Although viewers deem the primary purpose of TV to be entertainment, Ofcom found they also believe it should support wider social purposes. And there is a strongly held view that the main terrestrial channels should take a more proactive role in providing a safe environment for children to watch television.

Says Ofcom senior partner Ed Richards , a former policy advisor to prime minister Blair (who some see as the voice of Downing Street within the regulatory body): "Viewers have made it clear that public service broadcasting matters. But there are also real issues to overcome, both today and in the future.

"Public service broadcasting will only be sustainable if it produces challenging and popular programming which reaches a significant audience in the digital age."

The report recommends that the public service remit for ITV1 and [channel] Five should focus on news, regional news and original production.

ITV has been accused of scaling back its news output as heads roll at its regional news centre; also of rescheduling News at Ten, its evening flagship news programme, to the comparative graveyard slot of 10.30pm.

Stephen Carter, chief executive of Ofcom, observes: "This review makes it clear that television in this country is thriving and changing. We and the broadcasters must prepare our public service broadcasting for the digital future."

Data sourced from: BrandRepublic (UK); additional content by WARC staff