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ITV could drop news pledge unless ministers offer help against streamers

ITV could abandon its commitment to make news output if the government does not pass a law to protect British television channels from streaming services, according to leaked guidance drawn up for ministers.

Civil servants warned the culture secretary, Michelle Donelan, that ITV could choose to abandon its status as a public service broadcaster unless legislation is passed urgently.

Failure to act means the government is risking the future status of a channel “which invests significantly in content production and skills across the UK”, according to a civil service briefing seen by the Guardian. It said the issue is “especially urgent” for the British media industry.

The UK’s public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and S4C – have special obligations to make certain types of programmes for the public good, rather than simply chase viewers by flooding their schedules with more popular shows.

In return, the broadcasters benefit from prominent channel positions on television sets, which traditionally meant people are more likely to tune in. But the growth of streaming services such as Netflix – and the rise of smart TVs, which have their own home screens – has eaten away at the value of this “prominence” benefit. Many viewers simply bypass live TV altogether but the channels still have the same expensive obligations.

The government has drawn up legislation to deal with this, which would require TV manufacturers to prominently promote public service broadcasters if they want to sell their appliances in the UK. But the required law – which has been overwhelmingly welcomed by the British media industry – has been delayed after it was combined with controversial plans to privatise Channel 4.

The civil servant briefing set out the challenges Donelan faces after taking over the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport from Nadine Dorries: “Without clarity on the new regime, ITV argue that over the next licence period (10 years) they are struggling to forecast a commercially sustainable way to remain a PSB [public service broadcaster].”

“There is therefore a real risk that ITV will not apply to retain its PSB licence, and the UK will lose a PSB which invests significantly in content production and skills across the UK.”

Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, has highlighted the delays to many of the government’s policies, including reforms to the gambling system and the ongoing debate over whether to privatise Channel 4. She told the House of Commons last week it was “a bit like getting an Avanti train”.

“Like on the trains, delays cost businesses. Take the media bill: there is now a real risk to the very future of our public service broadcasters without it,” she said. The Guardian

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