Sunday, February 03, 2008

Party Games

I had a very interesting Saturday thanks to the Welsh national broadcaster, S4C. Many of you who know my history will know that I set up Narrowstep, the TV over the internet company, after being unable to watch Welsh rugby games whilst living in San Francisco. So, today was a fulfilling experience in many ways.

I attended the annual England v Wales game at the English rugby HQ, Twickenham, with the guys from S4C plus a balanced pair of politicians. Jeremy Hunt, publishing/internet mogul and MP for South West Surrey as well as the opposition spokesman on Culture, Media and Sports, and Alan Keen, mad football fan and MP for Feltham who sits on the Culture, Media and Sports Committee. They're both the kind of people who give politicians a good name.

Generally, we spoke no business, since there was enough rugby speculation to get through, but there was a short, but interesting, exchange from all parties on public service broadcasting.

I believe that the general consensus was that the OFCOM proposal for a Public Service Publisher (PSP) - on which I sat on the consulting committee, usually with a minority view - was, at best, confused. PSP was intended as a kind of super central commissioner for non-commercial content.. But all it does is distort the long tail. It would be far better for a more equitable distribution of the TV tax burden in the UK in terms of provision.

There seems to also be a consensus developing that the overall role of PSB in the UK needs a fundamental overhaul, which is right IMPO.

The fundamental question should be what should be supported from the public purse?

S4C is one of the most heavily subsidised broadcasters in Europe, but has been instrumental in the resurgence of the Welsh language and culture. To me, it is subsidy at its best, with tangible cultural benefits. Above all broadcasters, S4C should be instrumental in using the internet, which is accessible to almost all Welsh people, in launching its subsidiary and specialised channels.

Channel 4 and the BBC, on the other hand, are overtly commercial broadcasters who hide behind the PSB moniker. The BBC clearly makes a cultural contribution in places (in increasingly diminishing places). However, I doubt if the organisation behind Big Brother is anything more than a nationalised commercial broadcaster.

I personally have no doubt that the current PSBs see the commercial (ie ratings) imperative as being considerably more important than public service. But I guess that isn’t surprising after a decade under a performance obsessed government.

So, the idea of introducing a PSP is ludicrous in an existing totally imperfect system. However, the sentiment of these key politicians did leave me with some hope that the right outcome may be achieved. Balancing the commercially viable against the culturally necessary is not an easy role, but it will give us the TV we deserve, not the TV we're given.

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