The enduring importance of public service broadcasting

Gareth Barr 28th September 2023

Afghanistan: No Country for Women, Exposure (ITV) © Quicksilver Media

Following the publication of Ofcom’s report on news consumption, Gareth Barr, Director of Policy and Regulation at ITV, shares his view on the importance of public service broadcasting and why it should be protected.

Earlier this summer, Ofcom published its latest report on news consumption in the UK. “Light-hearted news on social media drawing Gen Z away from traditional sources” was the headline in the accompanying press release. Choosing to lead with this angle is not entirely surprising – anything about the growth of social media (and the inevitable ‘death of TV’ narrative that follows) are a guaranteed route to headlines.

But something else in Ofcom’s report caught my eye – something which should interest anyone who cares about how we continue to reach audiences at scale with stories about the world we live in: the enduring importance of public service broadcasting (PSB).

The enduring importance of PSB

And the importance of PSB is not just a BBC story. Ofcom’s research shows that ITV1 is still the second most-used news source in the UK, behind only BBC One across all TV, radio, print and online sources. Group these services together and ITV News as a whole is the second most-used cross-platform source, again behind only the BBC and still ahead of the likes of Facebook and Twitter.  

Perhaps even more interesting, Ofcom’s report shows that ITVX – our new streaming service – is already used by more people than TikTok for news. No mean feat given ITVX was only 3 months old when Ofcom’s research was in the field.

Even among teens, where you might expect so-called traditional media to struggle, ITV1 was used by 21% for news, only just behind the likes of TikTok (28%), YouTube and Instagram (25%).  

And it’s worth thinking about what people mean when they talk about social media platforms as ‘sources of news’ anyway. Because, really, they’re just platforms for other people’s news, including the PSBs. According to Ofcom, ITV was among the top 4 individual news organisations followed on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. In August, we had over a quarter of a billion views to ITV News videos on TikTok alone.

So, despite the radical changes in our industry, the PSBs continue to engage with audiences at scale with trusted, accurate and impartial news.

ITV has invested in its audiences

ITV’s success in engaging people with news across a range of platforms is no accident.

Most obviously, this success takes significant, sustained investment in news – well over £1bn over the last decade – and an enormous operation of talented people to make it happen. 

This huge commitment from ITV is reflected in our output. Last year we extended our evening news bulletin from 30 minutes to an hour, giving us more space to bring the best of ITV News to audiences of the UK’s biggest commercial television channel. Broadcast news on ITV1 remains a key way in which we bring stories of international significance to massive audiences – nearly 75% of viewers have watched ITV News over the last year. Whether that is live on-the-ground reporting, like our award winning broadcast of the storming of the US Capitol building in 2021, or ongoing in-depth reporting of the war in Ukraine and broader geopolitical tensions, ITV News is able to engage people right across the UK with stories from right across the world.

Success also requires continuous ambition and innovation. Take ITVX, launched late last year with much fanfare and a string of brilliant exclusive shows. A lot of the focus has, quite rightly, been on the sheer scale and quality of the content offer – including dramas with an international twist, like A Spy Among Friends or Litvinenko – and on the clean, modern user interface. 

Less talked about, but just as notable, is how central ITV News content is within the ITVX experience, particularly compared to other streaming services. There’s a news ‘rail’ on the homescreen, offering the very latest stories from ITV News in bitesize form. There’s a ‘news’ tab alongside more obvious categories like ‘drama’ and ‘film’. You can live stream ITV1 to watch our news bulletins live. It’s this centrality of news that’s driving the result of Ofcom’s research. It’s why ITVX users are streaming nearly 2.2m short-form news stories and 6.1m long-form news and current affairs programmes a month.

ITV’s international offer is about more than news

Whilst ITV’s extensive news output is the main way in which we inform people about the world we live in, it’s not the only way.

This year, David Modell’s brilliant, RTS award-winning documentary The Crossing looked at the very real human consequences of people trafficking across the English Channel. The jury “agreed it was a stupendous piece of film making, displaying great bravery and compelling storytelling. The topic itself was not new but this treatment offered an original insight into the migrant journey and the evil forces behind people smuggling.” 

This was not a one-off. Between 2020 and 2022, ITV’s Exposure strand won the Best Current Affairs Bafta three times in a row: for Undercover: Inside China’s Digital Gulag, America’s War on Abortion, and Fearless: The Women Fighting Putin. This year’s Afghanistan: No Country for Women and The Crossing were also nominated.

Elsewhere across ITV, Waco Untold looks at the stories of the British people who died in the notorious siege in America in the early 90s, DNA Journeys sees dancers and sisters Oti and Motsi Mabuse journey across South Africa, Gordon, Gino and Fred go to Spain, Bradley and Barney Walsh go to South America for Breaking Dad, Joanna Lumley explores the Spice Route, and we have a brilliant global natural history programme, A Year On Planet Earth. 

The enduring role of PSB should not be taken for granted

The success of the PSB system over the years – and ITV’s ability to engage mass audiences with content looking at international issues – is something to be celebrated. But we should not take continued success for granted. The economics of free-to-air, commercial PSB are becoming ever more challenging, and global competition is transforming our industry.

The draft Media Bill offers the chance to update British law to help ensure that PSBs can continue to thrive in a world dominated by global online platforms and powerful gatekeepers. It strikes a sensible balance between ensuring the long-term sustainability of commercial PSB, and what obligations it is reasonable to expect in return.  Everyone who believes in the power and importance of PSB to tell international stories with a uniquely British voice should actively support this crucial piece of legislation.

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