Mission Critical: U.K. Broadcasters Talk Survival in Face of Global Streamers

Naman Ramachandran
·4-min read

The growing popularity, backed by financial clout, of global streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus are forcing U.K. public service broadcasters (PSBs) to face down an existential threat.

This was the overarching theme at the virtual Deloitte and Enders Media and Telecoms conference, which featured top brass from the country’s technology, media and telecom sectors. These included BBC director general Tim Davie, ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall, Channel 4 chief executive Alex Mahon, and Maria Kyriacou, president of ViacomCBS Networks U.K. and Australia, which operates terrestrial broadcaster Channel 5.

More from Variety

Before the pandemic hit, the U.K. creative industry was going through a period of phenomenal growth, but is now confronting “a point of jeopardy,” said Davie at the conference. “It’s a brilliant British success story and it needs fuelling and [investment].” Describing the sector as an “enlightened blend of the private and public,” Davie said it has to be fought for and protected.

“The government are proactive on this, which is a situation in which we can ensure that there’s the right prominence in new environments for public service broadcasters,” said Davie. “That is critical. It protects local creative work.”

McCall said the PSBs need a level playing field to operate in. The urgent need for the government to change the framework for PSBs “is because this is a contract with broadcasters to deliver a public good, one that is going to be dramatically eroded because [of] the ferocious pace of digital change, we have all seen,” said McCall.

The PSBs operate under the Communications Act of 2003, a legislation that needs a “radical update,” said McCall. “There has been a digital online revolution, but we still have an analog regulatory framework for media,” she outlined.

“If we have learned anything from the pandemic, it is that people value the programs the PSBs offer. A key part of the government’s ‘building back better’ agenda would be to create a framework for a new PSB system that can continue to serve the public interest in the U.K., as well as helping to underpin a creative economy that creates opportunities,” said McCall.

The other PSBs, too, sang the local tune. Mahon said that Channel 4 research shows that viewers see them as being more responsive to their experiences and to their lives. The PSBs are “helping them to view the U.K. and the world from the inside of the U.K., taking the familiar and sharing it through a new lens, as opposed to the exports who are looking from the outside in, often showing us people that we enjoy watching, but that we can in no way relate to,” said Mahon.

Similarly, Kyriacou talked about the Channel 5 audience growth achieved “through a broad array of predominantly factual programming from British storytellers that reflect British lives in all of their diversity and across the whole of the country.”

Davie said he is a big fan of Netflix and also reiterated the cultural importance of British content. Simon Pitts, chief executive of Scottish PSB STV, said, “To a global giant, regionalization is more likely to mean Asia-Pacific versus Europe than London versus Glasgow.”

At a conference panel focusing on British production, Jane Millichip, chief content officer for Sky Studios, talked up the depth of talent in the U.K. and praised local soaps and serials as fertile training grounds. Wayne Garvie, president of international production at Sony Pictures Television, noted that the U.K. has the perfect ecosystem with a popular and award-winning show like “The Crown” being produced by Sony-backed Left Bank Pictures for a streamer. But even Garvie warned that “we can’t lose the essential elements of public service broadcasting.”

Reemah Sakaan, CEO of BritBox, described the BBC Studios and ITV-backed, Anglophile-targeting streamer as a “byword for quality, a sanctuary against a very different stylistic and different tonal production style, certainly in North America,” and as a repository of grace, humor and wit.

Marco Bassetti, CEO of Banijay Group, described the U.K. PSBs as an engine for the ecosystem and the best place to create new formats and IP and find new talent.

The fact remains that the U.K. PSBs, individually, have limited resources, compared to the riches available to the streamers. Davie presented a solution — unity. The BBC director general says that while the PSBs compete for the same audiences at prime time, they do come together, citing BritBox and digital platforms Freesat and Freeview as examples.

“It’s critical we collaborate,” said Davie, “The truth is we’ve always come together and created things that have had real value. We need to be working together and creating scale together in the new world.

“In areas like platform, we’ve got to think about what’s the future of open platforms. And, finally, I think we stand together in areas like prominence. There is a question for us as a community, as a culture, as the U.K., which is what kind of media market do we want? And we’ve always made those choices,” said Davie.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.