The Committee undertook two visits to inform this report. On 25 June 2019 the Committed visited Amazon’s international headquarters in London. Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Lord Gordon of Strathblane, Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall and Baroness Quin. The Committee was given a tour of its offices with a focus on the technological aspects of delivering the Amazon Prime video on demand service. The Committee heard briefings executives and technicians, including Georgia Brown who gave oral evidence to the Committee later that day.
On 27 June the committee travelled Glasgow to visit BBC Scotland and STV (the Scottish public service broadcaster), and to hold a roundtable discussion with local people hosted by the University of Strathclyde. The aim of the roundtable was to hear about changing viewing preferences and to explore perceptions of public service broadcasting. Participation was open to anyone interested who had registered to attend through an event management website. Publicity about the event was targeted to local community groups.
Lord Gilbert of Panteg, Viscount Colville of Culross and Lord Gordon of Strathblane were in attendance. Each member sat at a table and facilitated discussion assisted by committee staff and staff from the engagement team. This was followed by a short plenary discussion. A summary of the discussion follows.
Participants included retired people, local council workers and students, some of whom were studying communications. There was a diverse range of viewing habits and preferences and perceptions of broadcasting. Some held more positive views of the BBC and other PSBs than others.
A large proportion of participants subscribed to at least one SVOD. Netflix was the most popular, followed Amazon Prime, while only a few people had Now TV. One participant who subscribed to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Now TV noted that the combined cost was less than he had previously paid for Sky. Several participants had pay-TV but no access to SVODs. One participant stressed that not everyone can afford paid services. The free-to-air nature of PSB was fundamental for her.
Many participants said that they mainly watched video on demand services. For some watching Netflix was the default. However, many watched live TV news and sport and other ‘event’ TV. Some believed that such programmes unified the nation around ‘watercooler moments’. One student said that the downside of not having a TV licence was not being able to watch live sport, but that she went to the pub to do so. The students tended to watch video on demand programmes on personal devices whereas they watched linear TV on a TV set with family. A retired participant expressed concern about this fragmentation of family viewing. He added that the BBC had lost sight of elderly people in its focus on iPlayer.
STV’s soaps, the BBC’s political programmes, and Channel 4’s news, foreign language drama and All4 archive content were praised on one table. Some felt that the BBC was fundamentally not Scottish. Its reputation had been damaged during the Scottish Independence Referendum where it was seen as biased. The BBC also did a poor job of covering local sport: it was said that the BBC spent more on Gary Lineker than on Scottish sport. While some welcomed the launch of BBC Scotland, they felt that the content was not enjoyable.
Some felt that regional production was good for local economies but that having a good story was more important. Local productions could add authenticity and a sense of connection with a programme.
One participant was concerned about the risks of on-demand services for children. She noted news reports that a Netflix show had led to a rise in teenage suicides.
One of the students described the BBC’s programmes for young people as “frankly awful” and a poor attempt to emulate YouTube. They said that the BBC had become a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. Another agreed. However, the students enjoyed watching programmes originally shown on the BBC, such as Louis Theroux documentaries and Bodyguard, on Netflix.
Some students recognised their provenance but said that Netflix had gathered some of the best BBC content in one place and was cheaper than a TV licence. There was disagreement about the legitimacy of the licence fee. One participant argued that it is unpopular with poorer people and with younger people, who have grown up used to the freedom to make their own choices. There was some support for a subscription model but most agreed that commercial pressures, particularly obtaining advertising, would undermine the BBC’s impartiality.
One participant was highly critical of the licence fee and the BBC in general. He paid for pay-TV and so felt that he should not have to pay twice. He felt that the BBC had a lot of money but that it was not spent well. He conceded that he enjoyed BBC dramas such as Line of Duty and EastEnders and factual programmes such as David Attenborough documentaries. But he felt that the BBC was not accountable: it was more concerned with defending itself as an institution than on delivering on its original remit. He suggested that Ofcom should have a stronger role and that the BBC should become a largely commercial service.
The majority felt that public service broadcasting was necessary as a source of trustworthy news. Some felt that Channel 4 news was not balanced although it was responsible for good investigative journalism. One participant suggested that Al Jazeera provided better news coverage. Another believed that news could never be completely impartial but that PSBs were right to try. Several argued that PSBs should simply provide facts and a space for people from different perspectives to debate, rather than offering analysis. Some participants said that they liked to get partisan news from different sources, such as Fox News, before making up their own minds. Participants agreed that Twitter allowed people to hear different arguments, although there was some concern about echo chambers.