the bbc building

Public Service Broadcasting


As the name suggests, public service broadcasting (PSB) refers to the obligation to produce and broadcast programmes which serve the public interest rather than only commercial imperatives. The broadcasters are often funded by a licence fee but can also be supported by advertising revenue and other sources.

The most obvious example of public service broadcasting is the BBC in the UK.


The first director general of the BBC, Lord Reith, summarised the BBC’s purpose: “inform, educate and entertain”. The corporation and the media landscape has changed dramatically since 1927, but this duty remains part of the organisation’s mission statement.

According to the industry regulator, Ofcom, public service broadcasters (PSB) are supposed to deliver “impartial and trusted news, UK-originated programmes and distinctive content”. For instance, the BBC must ensure that “at least one hour is allocated to news during Daytime each weekday”. That is why you have Newsbeat and its bulletins scheduled throughout the day; one of its extended bulletins must be in Peak Listening Time.

Since broadcasters have an agenda-setting function, it is incredibly important to have reliable and unbiased output. Alongside the current affairs and factual programming, the BBC has to devote airtime to “leisure interests”, such as cooking and gardening. There is also a duty to represent local and regional themes.

With the BBC’s global reach, the UK government sees the corporation as an opportunity to influence international relations through of soft power. That is why the BBC aims to “reflect the United Kingdom, its culture and values to the world”.

Funding the BBC

If you read our introduction to David Hesmondhalgh’s The Cultural Industries or our definitions of media convergence, you will already know cultural industries consist of commercial entities which are profit-driven and often act in the interest of shareholders. In our guide to the agenda-function of mass media, we also referred to Noam Chomsky’s view that conglomerates “manufactured consent” and reinforced the power of the elites.

The BBC is able to remain impartial and highlight minority interests because it is financed by the public through the licence fee. If your household wants to “watch or record live TV programmes on any channel” in the UK, you are expected to contribute over £150 each year. In 2021, the BBC received £3750m through the licence fee.

The 2021 annual report stated the BBC also raised £1314m from the activities of its commercial subsidiaries. For example, BBC Studios generates income from “exploiting the various assets of the BBC”, such as selling international rights to its programmes, licencing programme formats, and merchandising.

Issues and Debates

Many critics question if the concept of public service broadcasting still relevant in our current economic and cultural context. Here are some discussion points:

  1. The BBC is not impacted by commercial forces and has a steady source of revenue. This leads to a distortion of the market and is anti-competitive.
  2. In the age of subscription services and a change in viewing habits, the funding model for the BBC is outdated.
  3. Ignoring its mission to “inform, educate and entertain”, the BBC chases audience ratings to justify its licence fee.
  4. There is so much media convergence, especially the concentration of powerful media companies, the BBC is needed more than ever for its independent voice.
  5. With more and more people refusing to pay the licence fee, is the BBC sustainable?

Other PSB in the UK

When the first commercial broadcaster (ITV) launched in 1955, the government required the station to deliver a certain amount of content which served the public’s interests. This includes news, current affairs, children, and religious programming. In contrast to the BBC’s funding model, ITV relies on income from advertising. Known as product placement, the company creates and owns some of its content so it can also offer advertisers a unique opportunity to integrate their brand into their shows.

Channel 5 is another private company, but it still has to satisfy its public service broadcasting remit and is regulated by Ofcom. Finally, although Channel 4 is owned by the public, it also depends on advertising for funding.

Ofcom regulates the scheduling and quantity of advertising and teleshopping on the channels.

PSB Around the World

Publicly owned French and German broadcasters raise money from licence fees, advertising, and sponsorships. Public service broadcasting in America is funded through a combination of donations, fundraising activities, and payments from members of the PSB network. Importantly, programming is subject to a set of standards to ensure the program is free of influence from the funding source.

Wikipedia has a list of public broadcasters by country.

Further Reading

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