Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/03/23/ofcom_psp/

Web 2.0 firms lobby for £100m gravy train

They play - you pay

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 23rd March 2007 15:15 GMT

Analysis Is the Web 2.0 hype running out of steam? If so, a healthy injection of public funds should kick it back into life.

New media companies in the UK are lobbying for the establishment of an institution which could spend what critics call a £100m "jackpot" of public money each year.

The new agency, which Ofcom calls a "Public Service Publisher" or PSP, would play a "gatekeeper" role in commissioning new media concepts. These range from interactive websites to participatory games involving different kinds of digital media, such as text messaging.

And without Parliament so much as examining the idea, it already looks like a shoo-in.

The idea has the powerful backing of UK Telecoms regulator Ofcom, and the personal imprimatur of its CEO Ed Richards, who describes it as the centerpiece of his "personal crusade".

"It's a new media answer to a new media question", Ofcom spokesman Simon Bates told us.

That's an indication of how much the idea has morphed since it was first floated three years ago. Back then, the PSP was envisaged as an independent commissioner of worthy Public Service Broadcasting - high quality documentaries and a dramas - fulfilling a role left by Channel 4's downmarket turn over the years, and as a counterweight to the BBC.

The latest incarnation of the PSP idea is sold as a helping hand to zero-budget web ideas - only it has an old school, TV-sized budget attached.

A taste of what to expect from the newly Web 2.0-ified PSP can be found in a discussion paper published in January, called A new approach to public service content in the digital media age: The potential role of the Public Service Publisher.

Examples of the type of output we can expect from the new quango include an earnest interactive panel format, where text messages are zapped in to a panel of "Citizens" and "Experts":

Experts and Citizens, united by technology

... and a multimedia game described as an "Augmented Reality Drama".

Interactive games from OFCOM's PSP

Kenneth Clark or Adam Curtis, this ain't.

Ofcom asked executives at two digital media production houses, Andrew Chitty of Illumina Digital, and Anthony Lilley of Magic Lantern Productions, to examine the idea. The resulting report is filled with buzzwords and assumptions that are the staple rhetoric of today's technology evangelist.

"We are entering the age of 'our media' where the communication of ideas amongst groups and the sharing of content are at the heart of what is going on. This change adds significantly to the ecology of mass media as we have understood it since the invention of radio broadcasting at the end of the 19th century," writes Lilley. "We are entering the networked, learning age."

So a New Age is upon us. But is it one that needs a new gatekeeper?

We asked Ofcom if there wasn't a conflict of interest in giving two new media production companies, who could well directly benefit from the creation of PSP, the job of recommending whether or not it should exist.

It's little surprise that Lilley and Chitty, who have lobbied tirelessly for the creation of the agency (Lilley with the help of his Guardian column) came out in support of the idea. As digital production companies, both Magic Lantern and Illumina Digital will be first in line to benefit from the new flood of public money.

Chitty and Lilley also came up with the modest budget proposal.

"We suggest funding of £50m to £100m annually as a sensible starting-point," wrote Chitty. But this is merely the start.

"However, the PSP's role within the public service system is likely to grow over time, and its initial funding may need to be expanded."

That's a lot of money for what critics charge is "fancy websites" and games.

Ofcom denied the conflict-of-interest charge.

"I wouldn't see them at being at a huge advantage," Bates told us. "When it comes to who will run the PSP, and where the money will come from and where it will go hasn't been decided. We've simply asked these two individuals to ask others how it could be developed."

Special pleading

We asked the key advocates of the new quango why digital media needed its own gatekeeper? Why the web needed preferential treatment over existing media, and why, in the age of YouTube, we needed a gatekeeper at all?

Interactive art and community projects face a variety of options for funding at the moment - and commercial sponsorship isn't hard to find.

According to Ofcom, its policy was not to intervene in the market, however, there were situations where market failure would justify it - and PSP was one of them.

"The market doesn't have the incentive to provide a certain kind of content," said Ofcom's Bates. "The BBC, with its license fee settlement...will provide a cornerstone of public service content and quite rightly so. But our strategic review found that the BBC needs competition in Public Sector Content".

But this jars somewhat with where Lilley sees support emerging:

"It's not about special pleading for creatives," he told us.

He said the PSP idea was winning backing from existing commercial ventures, which could use some help with their websites, such as major media owners.

"Channel 4 now see they could be a beneficiary," said Lilley. "Newspaper groups see they could be in partnerships".

It remains to be seen how popular the idea of underwriting, say, the Daily Express interactive Sudoku will be with the public, who ultimately foot the bill.

So while PSP is sold as a way of "empowering the grassroots", it's a boondoggle for big media. Not surprisingly, the PSP has already drawn fire from technology utopians who perhaps expected something more tuned to the amateur:

"Sadly, it seems the PSP [will be] funding the struggling UK film and TV industry to produce a quota of parochial 'new media projects', the IPR to which they may then exploit worldwide," says the Open Knowledge network's Saul Albert.

Ofcom's taxpayer-funded PSP will differ from other commissioning agencies - such as the Arts Council or the Film Council - in that its aesthetic role appears to be defined by the technology, and little more.

Stealth Quango

Luke Gibbs, the independent policy advisor and founder of the Ofcomwatch blog, finds PSP problematic for two reasons.

"It's public money - so it should be government driving the policy," he told us.

"If you're saying that you need to create a new BBC or Channel 4-type model, then that's industrial policy. It needs to be approved by Parliament and at the moment it's Ofcom making the suggestions about how public money is being spent. That's quite a hard sell, and it's not for Ofcom to be selling it."

The other is Ofcom's assumption that what applies to broadcast media should apply to the very different world of new media.

"The BBC and others have been privileged in being allowed sole use of a scarce public resource, from an era when people had little or no choice. In return for use of this scarce public resource, they were expected to adhere to certain principles.

"But in the online space how do you classify these obligations? And you haven't got the same scarcity of resources - material is likely to be too small within a vast ocean to be worth anything."

Saving content, by killing telly

Then there's the underlying assumption that TV is in terminal decline.

A history of technological innovation in media shows that after a period of disruption, every "new" media tends to validate and refresh the old, rather replacing it.

After the upheaval, the same media owners are usually in place - and typically more concentrated. It's quite unlike the history of transportation, where one technology (for example, the train) supersedes another (for example, the canalway) for economic reasons. So in assuming that TV is in a fatal condition, Ofcom is merely hastening its demise.

Ofcom quoted us figures suggesting that 10 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds had defected to the web: these are included in the report. But in addition to ignoring the impetus the internet provides for TV, the figures also show this is a generational factor: older adults value TV much more than the 16 to 24s. Once they have families, these viewers return.

Wouldn't good, relevant TV win them back? Ofcom told us its role was to cater to everyone - but the message appears simple. It's got the web religion, and from now on it's "computers or bust".

"Public Service Broadcasting has traditionally meant TV, and Sunday night dramas andd BBC Current Affairs shows. But we've got to look further ahead," Bates told us.

"We think there's a gap in the provision of content for new media networks - that's the context of the PSP debate. But no one is pretending the PSP is anything other than part of a solution to a wider challenge."

Even in the converging world of IP-based TV, there's little sign of "sit forward" more interactive services such as Joost, and "lean back" traditional TV, where an audience wants to be absorbed and entertained.

Also unacknowleged anywhere in the 57-page report is the rapid growth of "Mycasting" - which enables people to view their favourite TV shows remotely using Sling Media's Slingbox, or Orb Networks' software. Again, this use of technology enhances, rather than replaces traditional broadcasting.

Without acknowledging such developments, Ofcom's PSP authors offer a very narrow vision of the future.

Falling between the two stools, a PSP could find itself providing material for a cable channel or websites no one wants to watch.

As Ovum noted this week, only the biggest brands, such as YouTube, have made the leap from "sit forward" to "sit back". And there are very few of these major web content brands, confirming Gibbs' view that old media assumptions don't often apply to the new.

So stripped of its voguish web-centric sales pitch, is there really a reason for a £100m gatekeeper to exist?

How to respond

The consultation period ends today at 5pm. It's only gathered nine responses so far, so yours could make a difference. Details about the PSP can be found here - and readers can send their thoughts on the PSP to Ofcom via this handy form. ®