The future of PSB, according to Enders
Raymond Snoddy finds a glimmer of optimism for the future of public service broadcasting in the form of Claire Enders
It would be very easy to be despondent about both the state and future of public service broadcasting in this country.
There are the well-known structural problems caused by the vast international streaming companies, which can spend many multiples of the budgets of the combined forces of the UK’s PSB’s put together.
The spending on expensive, glossy dramas, by the likes of Netflix and Disney + in particular has, unsurprisingly, led to a drift of audiences in their direction.
Then you have a Government with an ideological bit between its teeth and an 80-seat majority hell-bent on privatising Channel 4 and dropping dark hints that a new BBC licence fee settlement could freeze the fee in real-terms or even feature an absolute cut.
This would come on top of a £1.4bn, or 30% cut from 2014 to 2020.
The BBC cost base is down £463m since 2015, and according to Enders Analysis, a licence fee settlement that rises by less than inflation, in inflationary times, could lead to a very real shortfall in the hundreds of millions by 2027.
This would inevitably lead to further job losses and cuts to the breadth of services provided and halt any planned investment in the Nations and Regions.
The choice of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary seemed like the cherry on this strange cake, even though she has published novels based on her Liverpool upbringing and appeared on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.
According to Dorries, the BBC is snobbish, elitist, riddled with nepotism, lacking in impartiality and might not even exist in 10 years' time. Wasn’t everyone watching Netflix these days?
It seems like as good a time as any to pull the duvet over your head and hope the future will go away.
And yet from an unexpected source came a glimmer of light this week – a voice of relative optimism from someone who has followed the ups and downs of public service broadcasting for more than 35 years and usually has a well-tuned ear for the rustlings of the political grapevine.
The penny has dropped that Netflix is no PSB substitute
Claire Enders, owner of Enders Analysis, while giving the annual Jocelyn Hay memorial lecture in honour of the founder of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer this week, did indeed set out the facts, which she has aplenty.
Everyone’s life, whatever their age, is touched in one way or another, by Britain’s public service broadcasters. The only exceptions are the 650 men and women who get elected to the House of Commons and are too busy voting to have much time to watch television.
Older audiences are watching as much TV as ever and although SVOD subscriptions soared to 18.5 million during lockdown more than 8 million adults do not want, or cannot afford to pay for, extra TV services beyond free-to-air television.
In contrast to the views of Dorries, Enders believes that public service broadcasting can survive not just for 10 years, but for 20 years and beyond.
“PSB remains so important to so many,” insisted Enders.
But how can this be, not least because of the apparent government antipathy to public broadcasters, particularly the BBC, and with the privatisation of Channel 4 on the way?
Enders believes that the “Let Them Eat Netflix” phase of the Government's broadcasting policy is over. The penny has dropped that national public service broadcasters and the wide range of services they offer cannot in any way be replicated by the likes of Netflix.
Inflation is BBC's most dangerous threat
The broadcasting analyst is even optimistic about the future of a privatised Channel 4. She believes that before he was unceremoniously removed, media minister John Whittingdale had been convinced of the need for Channel 4’s remit, including its distinctive news coverage, to be not just protected but extended.
Enders believes that regulations can be put into statute to protect what you want to protect about Channel 4– including setting thresholds for some independent producers and those outside London.
Privatisation could mean more investment in programmes not less, as has been seen at the Viacom-owned Channel 5 and at Sky since Comcast took over.
Channel 4 privatisation is not necessary Enders believes, but should it happen then there is the possibility that the channel with all its unique culture and tradition could have the opportunity to turn into a global player.
The most dangerous threat the BBC faces, Enders believes, comes from inflation, and inflation in the broadcasting industry usually runs a long way ahead of general inflation.
Inflation in drama costs, stoked up by the international players, is running at around 10% and it’s not just butchers and HGV drivers, who are now in short supply in the UK.
Perhaps the Government is also just starting to appreciate the role of public service broadcasters, not just their importance for UK society but also for the creative economy and its rare ability to deliver British successes in the shape of Oscars.
Enders clearly believes a decent licence fee settlement for the BBC is possible and that the Government will pass legislation to ensure that the PSBs on-screen listing prominence is extended to online platforms and devices including Sky Glass.
As part of 2022 broadcasting legislation – the first major bill since 2003- public service broadcasting licences would be extended for another 10 years and there could be a “successful Channel 4 transition.”
What about Nadine Dorries?
“Judge her by her actions not her words,” Enders replied in answer to this question.
The trouble is her words so far have been so silly and ill-informed that it’s difficult to imagine her getting a handle on the importance of public service broadcasting overnight.
The American-born Enders is no Pollyanna. She knows her onions and believes the British system of public service broadcasting is one of this country’s finest cultural achievements.
We can only hope that she has correctly picked up vibrations in favour of public service broadcasting in the Government, largely undetectable to the rest of us mere mortals.
We can only hope – and pray whether you are a believer or not – that Claire Enders is right.