Ofcom: Small Screen, Big Debate

Report by Nicky Foley, Film and Media student

Small Screen, Big Debate

On 30 January 2020, staff from the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, hosted a discussion with Stirling students on the future of public service broadcasting. Small screen, Big Debate is a qualitative research project which aims to hold public discussions, consult various broadcasters, industry bodies, and viewers groups to make recommendations to the government on the future and sustainability of PSBs and the TV licence. The event started with an informative presentation about the project which encouraged us to give an honest opinion. We were split into 4 groups of around 7 students with a representative from Ofcom.

Most of the participants were international students in the 18-23 age range. This is significant because they did not grow up watching British television and as such have limited knowledge of the role of PSBs and the TV licence, but have knowledge of other types of media systems. Having said that, they were unified in recognising the BBC as a world leading broadcaster. They all respect it, had grown up knowing about it, and trusted its news. None of the students, bar one, owned or had access to a physical TV set where they live, but they use streaming services and YouTube for shorter content.

There was a perception that the BBC was for an older demographic and not appealing to them, although many did not realise that some of the content they watched on Netflix or Amazon Prime was produced by the BBC. This is in part because public service broadcasters do not promote themselves as much as the streaming services do. Furthermore, PSB was seen to compare poorly in terms of value. For the cost of a TV licence students could get subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon and Spotify combined, which they felt was more tailored to their viewing preferences.

For news, however, the BBC was felt to be the most trustworthy source. Hence, when students wanted to watch news, they would access a BBC app on their mobile devices. Given this selective consumption, they felt the TV licence would work better if you could buy smaller chunks, so just pay for news, or children’s TV. They also pointed out if there were short of money, they could cancel their subscriptions for a month or two, whilst the TV licence was a year-long payment commitment. This flexibility was something that PSBs could adopt to make them more relevant to the current market.

It is difficult to get a sense of public opinion from this kind of exercise as everyone has such individual needs and tastes, and small groups may not be equally representative in age, disability, gender and race. Perhaps a longer engagement is needed. A student panel on PSB could feed back to Ofcom on an ongoing basis, while helping students get an up-to-date sense of the industry and the challenges it faces, and linking academic studies with applied research.