Public service broadcasters face a fight for survival as they are “hurtling towards a post-broadcast world,” according to former BBC director general Mark Thompson.
Speaking at Ofcom’s virtual Small Screen, Big Debate conference, the seasoned media executive, who has also headed up both Channel 4 and the New York Times, said PSBs had not kept up with the pace of change, with commercial broadcasters risking “losing their soul” as deep-pocketed US companies swallow up their audiences.
“The challenge for the industry’s leaders and Ofcom is to figure out if it’s too late,” he said. “Are you still driving a horse and buggy while the rest of the world is driving cars? Or is it possible, with highly energetic decision-making and the right level of investment, to recapture those audiences? I strongly want to believe in the second of these - but time is running out.”
Thompson said an obsession with ‘young’ audiences migrating from linear viewing masks the fact that this really means viewers under 50. Echoing the BBC’s proposals to shift commissioning power to the iPlayer, he said: “Linear channels will be around for many, many years, largely consumed by older people, but still as very important services. But the commissioning pounds and control, and the premiering of most of content, needs to be online now.”
Commercial PSBs, he said, face “a bigger in-tray of existential issues”: identifying new revenue streams and re-establishing their identity when SVoDs commissioning similar shows - and, for Channel 4, “how do you appeal to young audiences without losing your PSB soul?”
Thompson had some hope that Channel 4’s new regional structure could establish a position of strength for the broadcaster. “If it can demonstrate ways to do something different and unashamedly British – of the UK and for the UK – there will still something there for it. But this is a tough environment for small TV companies around the world.”