Don’t let tech giants bury public service TV

Letters
‘For Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, television is increasingly the frontline in the battle for global influence.’ Photograph: Getty/iStockphoto

There is a global commercial battle going on to shape and influence what we watch, listen to or buy from the comfort of our homes. Whether it’s Amazon’s search results determining what we buy when we shop online, Facebook deciding which stories and posts we see on social media, or Google controlling the results when we search the internet, global technology firms are shaping our choices and our influences.

Technological change is fundamentally changing the way people watch TV – superfast broadband delivers streaming services to the home through connected TVs and streaming sticks, 4G mobile allows people to watch on demand wherever they are, whenever they like. TV is no longer national, it’s global. For Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google, television is increasingly the frontline in the battle for global influence.

Public service broadcasting is essential to our culture. It supports social cohesion, informs our understanding of the world, shapes public debate and contributes to our global soft power. It is also vital to our democracy, reaching tens of millions of people each week with high-quality, accurate and impartial news, covering events in the world around them, at home and abroad. In an era of fake news, echo chambers and social media filter bubbles, Ofcom data tells us that TV remains the most important and trusted source of news for UK citizens. Economically, the public service broadcasters (PSBs) are a major driver of the UK’s thriving creative industries, one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy.

Despite the much-repeated mantra that television is dying, PSB and TV viewing remains high. This is in large part because the PSBs spend around £2.6bn every year on new programmes, made here in the UK, that reflect people’s lives and experiences. Whether they’re watching old favourites like EastEnders or Coronation Street, high-end UK drama like Bodyguard or Vanity Fair, entertainment like The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor, or great factual programming like The Undateables or Michael Palin in North Korea, they’re watching in their millions week in, week out.

Global technology players have growing influence on what UK audiences discover when they turn on their screens. Increasingly they are becoming the gatekeepers to what we watch, but they have little interest in supporting and reflecting UK culture, in ensuring the news they supply is accurate and impartial or in distributing their operations across the UK. In fact, they have every incentive to promote their own programmes and those of their commercial partners with deals done globally and implemented in the same way country by country. And this promotion matters: more than 80% of the TV shows people watch on Netflix are reportedly discovered through its recommendation system. The Netflix button on the remote control is another reminder of how much the market has already changed – the company is able to use its deep pockets to effectively buy prominence.

This is why it is so important that public service content remains easy for audiences to find in this ever more competitive and complex world. The media regulator Ofcom’s consultation on the prominence rules review has just closed for submissions, and we have all put forward our compelling case for reform. We are calling on the government to modernise the rules that help guarantee prominence for PSB linear services and associated on-demand services, such as the BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, STV Player, All 4, My5, and S4C Clic, to ensure they are fit for purpose as viewing habits change. Regardless of where you’re watching, which device you’re watching on, or who provides your television service, you should always be able to easily find PSB services and programmes in the UK.

The government and Ofcom can ensure that PSBs can continue to play their vital role in the UK’s democracy, culture and creative economy, while at the same time making sure that consumers benefit from the incredible innovation that the global technology players bring with them. We need to, and can have both.
Carolyn McCall CEO, ITV
Tony Hall Director general, BBC
Alex Mahon CEO, Channel 4
James Currell President, Viacom UK
Simon Pitts CEO, STV
Owen Evans CEO, S4C





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