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    Friday, 30 March 2007

    Ofcom's Public Service Publisher: Version 2.0?

    At the Westminster Media Forum's bash Wednesday the topic was Public Service Content. The event was timed to coincide with deliberations of the Culture Select Committee Inquiry on the same topic. But whilst the Parliamentary Committee are taking an admirably broad approach to the topic - dealing with Channel Four's funding, public service competition to the BBC, and Ofcom's proposed Public Service Publisher (PSP) - the focus here was on just one thing: the PSP.

    Events discussing the PSP have two things in common. One is the likelihood that there is at least one person wandering about waiting for mention of portable games consoles, and the other is a vague 'what is all this about anyway and why are we all talking about it' atmosphere. The answer is a bit complicated. The reason that the PSP term was coined, and that the first sketched proposals were discussed in a seminar organised by Ofcom in 2005, is that Ofcom's Public Service Television review identified enduring 'market failures' in provision of public service content on television. The PSP, widely seen as Ed Richards personal brainchild, is an outline for a new public service intervention to plug that gap. The only thing clear about it is that it is not the product of spectrum scarcity nor is it delivered through a licensing scheme. It is in that sense genuinely a new era intervention.

    This led to what we now call PSP version 1.0: which was basically a proposal for contestible funding for commissioning of public service AV content as far as I could see, content that would be provided to broadcasters among others. At the time, as Steve Hewlett reminded us Wednesday, the £300 million price tag for the PSP was seen as roughly equivalent to the value of below the radar subsidies that broadcasters enjoy in the form of free or cheap spectrum, which will probably dissappear with switchover. The PSP version 2.0 evident in the recent Chitty/Lilley paper for Ofcom and at this event is a different beast. It is part commissioning fund, part portal, and does not seem to be about broadcasting any more. And it will be a lot cheaper.

    The PSP seems to be serving extremely well what I think is its really valuable function: to stimulate real debate about what is the appropriate level and form of public subsidy in the AV system of the future. (As a contrast to the carve-up which often passes for debate in this sector). The problem is, where does Version 2.0 leave Ofcom's original excuse for putting the PSP on the agenda? Apparently it is sections 3 and 234 of the Communications Act (about ensuring effective delivery of high quality radio and television PSB) that justify Ofcom's pursuing this agenda. But if version 2.0 is really a portal for museums and user generated content, they may have to rummage in those hudreds of duties for a better excuse. Ofcom is a creature of statute after all. And if there are no excuses in there? maybe, as we enter the new legislative cycle, we should look at those statutes again and give them one.

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