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Media Landscapes

United Kingdom

Written by Michael Bromley


The media landscape in the United Kingdom is large, complex and mature, arguably ranking second globally to that of the USA. This status is derived to some extent from the use of English as the primary natural language of production and content. Although none of the major global media conglomerates is based in the UK, a number of media organisations, notably Reuters and the BBC, have international standing in their own right. UK activities also contribute significantly to the operations of global conglomerates, such as NewsCorp, Bertelsmann and Time Warner. A desire to be present in emerging global media markets led to increasing deregulation under both Conservative and Labour governments since 1979.

The UK media sector is relatively open, with participants from many countries active in almost all aspects – newspapers, television, magazines, radio, film, books, advertising, music, telephones and public relations. At the same time, UK media organisations have interests in many parts of the world. Since the late 1990s, successive Labour governments have attempted to elide the distinction between culture and commerce, leading to the adoption of the idea of the ‘creative industries’. The UK has also been affected by the general decline in consumption of traditional media, particularly newspapers, which has been evident in most developed countries. The government objective is for the UK to be digital by 2014. These trends have been accompanied by widespread and vociferous concerns about media quality.

It should be remembered that, while, in many respects, the UK media landscape is a single entity, there are distinctive English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh dimensions, reflecting the composition of the State itself, and heightened by political and administrative devolution in the late 1990s. The UK’s adult population numbers 47.5m, and the total population is 61m.

The UK is effectively saturated with traditional electronic media, Multi-television, multi-radio and multi-telephone households are commonplace. The four sectors are worth a total of about 100bn British pounds (111m euro ) a year. The audiovisual media’s major defining characteristic is the existence of a strong public service broadcaster, the BBC supported by a universal compulsory television licence fee.

Perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic of the print media is the existence of a large national newspaper sector, comprised of 11 daily and the same number of Sunday titles. (The numbers include two Scottish papers, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail.) About 75m such papers are sold every week, which are read by about 70 percent of the adult population. In July 2009, the total sales of national newspapers were just under 11m for both daily and Sunday titles. These numbers were well below peaks reached in the late 1950s. The last half-century has been one of secular decline in national newspaper sales and readerships.

In 2009 sales of national daily newspapers were 2.25 percent below 2008 figures, and sales of Sunday titles had fallen by 4 percent. Such was the state of circulation decline that in 2009 the owners, Guardian Media, were actively considering closing The Observer (398,000), the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper. Closure of The Independent (198,000) and The Independent on Sunday (160,000) was also being canvassed.

This press is commonly divided into three sectors – ‘quality’, ‘middle market’ and ‘red-top tabloid’. For more than 20 years, all the papers in the latter two categories have been tabloid in size. More recently, three of the ‘quality’ titles abandoned the broadsheet format and adopted either a ‘compact’ (The Independent and The Times) or Berliner (The Guardian) size. This change stimulated much debate over whether the national press was abandoning ‘serious’ journalism .

The entire national newspaper press is owned by eight companies, of which the largest two (News International and Daily Mail and General Trust) had 55 percent of market share in 2005. With Trinity Mirror (16 percent) and Northern and Shell (14.5 percent), the top four owners control 85 percent of the market.

A similar concentration of ownership is evident in the regional and local press. The five largest owners control 72.5 percent of the market – more than 700 newspapers. Of those, three (Trinity Mirror, Associated and Northcliffe) are also among the top four national newspaper companies. In sum, then, all forms of newspaper ownership are heavily concentrated in three corporations (News International, Trinity Mirror and Daily Mail and General Trust/Northcliffe/Associated), amounting to 360 titles (28 percent of all newspapers in the UK), some of them the largest circulating in their sectors.

There are estimated to be 1,250 Sunday, week-day (morning and evening) and weekly (sometime, twice weekly) regional and local titles, further sub-divided between those papers which charge a cover price and those which are distributed for free. In all, around 40m copies of regional and local newspapers circulate and are read by about 84 percent of the adult population. More than 90 percent circulate once (occasionally, twice) a week. Individual readerships are on the whole small.

The much smaller numbers of regional and local daily (25 morning and 75 evening) and Sunday (21) titles generally have larger circulations. This is the layer at which a distinctive press serving England, particularly London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is most evident. The biggest selling regional and local papers are published in Scotland.

The regional and local press has suffered long-term decline. In the 1960s evening newspapers were read in nine out of ten households in their circulation areas. In 2006 many commentators believed they would soon cease to exist. Between 2008 and 2009 all regional daily newspapers (morning and evening) lost circulation, with falls of up to 18.4 percent. The London Evening Standard, until recently the largest selling evening newspaper in the UK, was sold for a nominal sum, and in 2009 it was selling only 144,260 copies, an effective fall of 20 percent on 2008.

Attempts to attract readers with alternative formats began in 1999 when Associated Newspapers (see above) launched the free commuter paper Metro in London. By 2003 total distributions of a series of Metro titles in British cities totaled 840,000, making it the world’s largest free newspaper. In response, some paid-for papers, such as the Evening Standard and Manchester Evening News started free ‘lite’ editions. In September 2006, News International (owned by NewsCorp) launched the free London Paper in competition with the Standard’s London Lite. Many of these titles have since ceased publication, including the London Paper which closed in 2009.

A number of regional dailies switched, or were on the verge of switching, to weekly publication, In addition, more than 50 local papers (mostly freesheets) closed in 2008.

Newspaper advertising revenues have also been falling steadily since 2004. The rate of decline (5 percent a year) has been five times as great in the regional and local press as it has in the national press. Newspapers account for about 25 percent of all advertising.

The UK magazine sector is also large and was growing for more than a decade. There are between 8,800 and 10,000 titles (estimates vary). About two-thirds are ‘business and professional’ titles, and the rest are ‘consumer’ magazines. The former often have very small controlled circulations (mostly on subscription), while best-selling consumer titles have readerships of one million or more. Neither the very biggest selling titles, nor most of the business and professional periodicals are normally sold through news-stands. Nevertheless, the consumer magazines which are sold this way are the most visible part of the sector.

News-stand sales of about 300 consumer magazine titles account for around 100m copies each month. Only two magazines sold over the counter, What’s On TV (1.2m) and TV Choice (1.3m) are among those with the largest circulations. The others are ‘customer’ or ‘member’ magazines, produced for mainly free distribution as marketing tools.

Although there are almost 1,000 magazine publishers, as with the newspaper industry, there are also heavy concentrations of ownership. Only 25 are considered to be major players, but since the late 1990s the larger companies have been reducing their relative shares of the market. Unlike the newspaper industry, the magazine sector has a number of major European owners, such as H Bauer and Hachette Filipacchi.

Consumer magazine circulations have been falling, too, by as much as 25 percent. The largest seven publishers, which control circulations aggregating to about 21m,  lost sales in 2009: Hachette Filipacchi (-6 percent); National Magazine Company (-4.3 percent); Condé Nast (-5.8 percent); IPC Media (-8.9 percent); Bauer Media (-6.1 percent); BBC Worldwide (-8.5 percent) and H Bauer (-4.9 percent).

Finally, it is worth noting that there are substantial ‘minority’ and ‘alternative’ press sectors in the UK. These address a wide range of cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, lifestyle, political, environmental and social areas.

Radio has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity. More than 90 percent of people over 15 years of age (46.3m) listen at least once a week. However, it is national, rather than local, stations which have increased their popularity.

The BBC operates ten national radio stations; the World Service; regional stations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (including stations broadcasting in Welsh and Scots), and 30 local stations. Radio is also characterised by a multi-faceted commercial presence alongside that of the BBC. About 300 commercial radio stations broadcast across a number of platforms, the vast majority being local.

In mid-2009, the BBC’s overall share of the radio audience was 54.6 percent: commercial radio had 42.7 percent. The BBC’s Radio 2 had the largest single station weekly reach (13.42m listeners). Radio 1 reached 11.45m people. Classic FM, the largest single commercial station, reached 5.4m. On the other hand, the reach of local commercial radio is greater than that of local BBC services. The largest commercial radio group, Global Radio, with 33 stations, claims about 40 percent of all commercial radio listening (19m listeners). A small number of large chains dominates the sector. These include Bauer Radio (12.65m listeners) and GMG (5m). However, commercial radio advertising revenues have been declining since 2003. They account for about 2.8 percent of total display advertising.

There are also more than 205 community radio licences, with more than 140 community stations on air.

UK television channels broadcast about 2.5m hours of programming a year. There are four main public service free-to-air broadcasters (the BBC [operating two services, One and Two], Independent Television [ITV], Channel 4 and 5) which attract about 60 percent of total viewing. Three of these (ITV, Channel 4 and 5) carry advertising. UK television is also characterised by multi-channel provision, much of it subscription based, although the BBC has eight channels.

More than 90 percent of UK households have multi-channel television. Nearly 500 channels are available (including 30 24/7 news channels). BSkyB, controlled by NewsCorp, is the major satellite provider. Freeview is a set-top box system jointly owned by the BBC, BSkyB and Crown Castle. Sky operates 26 channels of its own, including nine movie channels and five sports channels. Others available include those from the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5, plus global offerings such as Cartoon Network, CNN, Discovery, DW-TV, Fox News, MTV, Nickelodeon, TCM and VH1.

Ironically, the public service broadcasters have been leading the charge into multi-channel services. The BBC operates 14 television channels globally. A number of commercial multi-channel services have recently been withdrawn or cut back, the most notable of which was the closure of the UK business of Setanta Sports.

In all, the BBC attracts about a third of the total TV audience. It is funded through the collection of a universal licence fee (in 2009, ₤142.50 [€ ]). The main free-to-air commercial public service broadcaster, ITV, has about a 25percent share, and the rest is shared across many channels.

Television accounts for about 23percent of the UK’s display advertising market.

The UK box office is worth 850m pounds with domestically-produced films accounting for just under a third of this. The number of cinema screens has increased annually since 2006: there are now more than 3,600. The UK has the highest number of digital cinema screens in Europe (more than 300). About 70 screens have 3D capability. About 60 percent of people go to the cinema at least once a year.

However, more film is watched on DVD and television: about 40 percent of film revenues (the largest single proportion) comes from DVD sales and rentals, while on average each person in the UK watches more than 60 films on television each year.

The UK produces just under 70 feature films each year. The numbers of companies involved in film and video production (7,970), distribution (435) and exhibition (230) have grown steadily for the past decade.

In sum, the cinema industry turns over 61bn pounds. By the international measure of ‘filmed entertainment’, the UK is the third ranked country in the world behind the USA and Japan. Its revenues are higher than those of all of the rest of Europe put together.

The UK telecommunications sector is characterized by the development of new technologies and services based on them. For the first time, in 2009 personal use of mobile telephones was greater than the use of fixed line phones across the UK. Revenues from mobile voice calls more than tripled in the decade to 2008. At the same time, revenues from fixed-line voice calls fell by 27 percent. One in nine households has a mobile but no fixed-line connection. Mobile call minutes will overtake fixed-line calls on present trends in 2010.

The once publicly-owned monopoly British Telecom (BT) now accounts for less than a half of retail fixed-line voice calls to UK numbers. Nearly 85 percent of premises are connected to a choice of services. O2 is the largest provider of telecoms connections. There are five mobile network operators: Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, 3UK and O2. They provide nearly 66 percent of all telephone connections, compared to BT’s 19 percent. 02 has the largest share (21.5 percent). Virgin is the largest mobile virtual network operator. The supermarket chain Tesco is the second largest.

There are 33m fixed telephone lines in the UK and nearly 77m active mobile connections (126 for every 100 people). Nearly 19m connections are to 3G services. Prepay mobile connections outnumber contracts by 2:1, but have been falling since 2006 as cheaper SIM-only deals are introduced. Mobile users spend an average of 123 minutes making calls, and send 99 text messages a month. The average household spends 65 pounds a month on telephone services - 32 pounds through mobiles and 22 pounds through fixed-line connections.

The  big take-off, however, is in digital services. Nearly two-thirds of households have broadband connections. Data services account for a third of fixed-line revenues. Digital subscriber lines (DSL) remain more prevalent than cable connections. More than 750 providers have agreements to use BT lines. There were nine major providers and two cable operators, ntl and Telewest but after a number of mergers, the combined market share of  the five largest is 91 percent. About 8m people access the internet through their mobile phones, and the figure is almost doubling year-on-year driven by the availability of smart phones.

Total telecom revenues are 39.5bn pounds. Mobile retail revenues are 15.4bn pounds (39 percent).

Nine out of ten UK homes have digital television; more than a quarter have digital video recorders, and nearly a third have digital radio. Added to the uptake of digital telecommunications (broadband, G3) mentioned above, the UK has become a digital nation. Nearly a half of homes have bundled services – telephony and broadband, or telephony, broadband and television. The first digital-only regions switched over from November 2008.

Nearly 49m people (close to 80 percent of the population) are online users. More than nine out of every ten of these visit search engines. Google is the most popular with about 31m unique users a month. Other sites, such as, MSN/Live Search and Yahoo!, each has about 7m unique users.

Music downloading is one of the most popular online activities. Digital sales of music continue to rise and account for 17 percent of all music sales: a third of these are sales completed using mobile devices. iTunes Store accounts for 75 percent of digital sales of music. About 4.5m people share files, predominantly music. Music streaming sites also attract millions of users.

Posting self-generated content is a minority interest, but social network sites have tens of millions of UK contributors. The most popular is Facebook with nearly 20m UK contributors. About a half of all people aged 15-34 have spaces. About 30 percent set up a profile each year. In a matter of months, Twitter grew to have 2.6m users in the UK.

The online domain accounts for about 20 percent of UK advertising revenues.

All significant media have online presences, a trend started in 1994 with the Electronic Telegraph followed by Guardian Unlimited, whose site has made the paper the most widely read in the world. BBC Online is one of the world’s most visited sites.

Newspaper web sites typically have features, such as audio, video and blogs, not found in the print editions. The two most popular, and the Telegraph, have more than 30m unique users a month each.  

The dash to digital is led by television, however. BBC Online says it is visited by 43 percent of the UK population. The service is a compilation of many sites containing about 2m individual pages. BBC News and Sport is the most visited area, claiming about a fifth of all users.

However, video on demand (VOD) allowing viewers to catch up with scheduled broadcasts they have missed is perhaps the biggest driver of online media use. About a quarter of all households use VOD. The main service is the BBC’s iPlayer which has posted 275m video streams, with another 100m available direct to TV sets through Virgin Media. Channel 4 has posted 150m video streams.

There is a plethora of organisations representing every facet of media activity - media owners and operators, advertising, internet producers and service providers, television, radio, magazines, books, newspapers, independent producers, media professionals and employees groups including trade unions (see below) and specialized professional and industry services.

A number of international media organisations have main offices or run significant activities in the UK.

Digital UK is a not-for-profit company overseeing the switch to digital.

London is a major global communications hub, and many news and picture agencies, working for all media, are located there. It is the world headquarters of Thomson Reuters, and a base for a number of other international agencies. Among the international agencies operating London bureaux are Agence France-Presse; Agencia EFE; AP; Bloomberg; Dow Jones; DPA; IRNA; ITAR-Tass, and Xinhua. The national agency is the Press Association (PA), based in London and with offices in Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow. There are more than 100 local agencies, supplying mainly the UK media.

The main trade unions are the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union and the  National Union of Journalists. There is a Graphical, Paper and Media section in Amicus, the largest trade union in the UK. Media workers are also members of general unions like GMB and Unison.

There are dozens of picture libraries providing images to the media.

News on ITV, Channel 4 and More4 television is supplied by Independent Television News, reaching about 10m viewers, and a similar service is provided to commercial radio by Independent Radio News with a reach of 26m listeners.

Independent production in broadcasting has grown significantly in recent years, since the imposition of a minimum quota of 25 percent of domestic television output. In 2005, the BBC decided that it would increase that to 50 percent and in 2008 it broadcast programming made by nearly 300 independent producers. Independents produce many of the most popular programmes, and some showpieces, such as coverage of Wimbledon and the Olympics.

The overarching government approach to media has been one of ‘light touch’ control and an open market environment. The main drive is to increase private ownership and to ‘be digital’. This has led to progressive reductions in regulation. However, the existence of the BBC as a four-dimensional – print, television, radio and online – public service entity sits uneasily with this arrangement. Considerable elements of the BBC are not publicly funded –  mainly international operations. The BBC supports Community Channel, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office funds the World Service. This has led to complaints that the presence of the BBC distorts the market. Partly in response, and at a time when many conventional media are struggling to survive, the BBC has offered content-sharing agreements with commercial enterprises, including national and local newspapers. Possibly the largest single issue facing Government is whether to continue the BBC as a publicly-funded entity beyond 2016 when its charter is due for review. The Government department with major responsibility for the media is Culture, Media and Sport.

It is estimated that more than 140 pieces of legislation have direct relevance to the media, and litigation is a favoured method (among those who can afford it) of bringing the media to account. Privacy was not recognised as such in UK law; however, cases could be brought for breaches of confidentiality. Freedom of expression is protected under the 1998 Human Rights Act which enacted into UK law the European Convention on Human Rights, and a Freedom of Information Act came into force in 2005. The 1998 Act also introduced privacy as a statutory right. The main piece of media legislation is the Communications Act which established Ofcom. As a rule, activities by and in the media are governed by general law.

For the past century the UK has had two main formal accountability systems – voluntary and statutory. Crudely, voluntary regulation occurred in commercial environments (the press), and statutory controls existed where there was a significant public interest dimension (broadcasting). This arrangement reflected the supply side of media: entry into the press market was supposedly open – anyone could start a newspaper without the need for a licence. However, broadcast spectrum was scarce and considered a national asset, and governments authorised radio and television stations. In the 1980s and 1990s many broadcasters complained that statutory regulation was stifling free expression, while others dismissed voluntary regulation of the press as ineffectual. Moreover, convergence and cross-platform media eroded the distinctions between the press and broadcasting, and provided new regulatory challenges.

The press – newspapers and magazines – operate the voluntary Press Complaints Commission. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has had a code of ethics since 1936, but its Ethics Council is largely moribund. The Advertising Standards Authority operates a voluntary scheme for the press, but broadcast advertising is overseen by Ofcom (see below).

There are several informal accountability activities. The trade press and general interest newspapers occasionally perform this role: both the NUJ and the Chartered Institute of Journalists publish journals, and there is the British Journalism Review. The Guardian publishes a weekly Media supplement (on Mondays). Insiders are generally less prominent than outsiders, however. Organizations which seek to explore media issues include the Media Standards Trust; Media Trust (media and charities); MediaWise (ethics); Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom; Campaign for Freedom of Information; Runnymede Trust (diversity), and the London International Research Exchange.

In 2003 a complex system of media regulation and oversight was partially rationalised through the creation of Ofcom to police broadcasting and telecommunications (replacing five separate bodies). This heralded a ‘lighter touch’ statutory regulation (for example, prohibitions on cross-media ownership were relaxed); however, controls over content were strengthened. This aspect of Ofcom’s work also applied for the first time to the BBC. Otherwise, the Corporation established a Trust to oversee its operations and to represent the public. As a public corporation, the BBC is ultimately answerable to parliament. The internet also lies outside the remit of Ofcom which is overseen voluntarily by the Internet Watch Foundation. Films are classified, and censored, by the Board of Classification.

There is no shortage of resources. These range from directories, through reports and academic journals, to the trade press and web sites. They cover almost aspects of the media, from critical analysis and political critique to news and job listings.

More than 100 organizations and institutions provide or accredit education and training in media, ranging from academic Media Studies to technical skills acquisition. The most common qualification is the three-year BA with Honours (in Scotland, three years without Honours; four years with). The second most popular programmes are MAs, usually nested with postgraduate certificates (PGCert) and diplomas (PGDip). The PGDip is also a relatively common terminal award in journalism. Industry bodies which oversee and sometimes provide training include Skillset, the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, the Periodicals Training Council and the NUJ.

The hard copy starting-point for research is the annual media director published under several different titles by The Guardian. There are several publications directed at trade and technical audiences. Historical and contemporary directories are held in the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale, north London. There are many accessible journals and magazines. The Guardian has a weekly media supplement and an associated web site. British Rate and Data is a source for statistics.

The UK media landscape is large and complex. For 80 years the publicly-funded, public service BBC has been a defining element in it. However, over the past 50 years, starting with the introduction of ITV in 1956, the UK media have been increasingly commercialized. This has brought broadcasting more into line with the press, which was founded in commercial enterprise. Particularly from the 1980s, the BBC’s future has not always looked to be assured as successive government’s committed to increasing commercialization. 

Two trends are worth noting:

  1. The future of the BBC and its role in the overall media landscape. The BBC has diversified into a multi-channel, multi-platform, part-commercial entity which is now willing to share some of its content with other commercial media. Is this the future for the BBC, or is the issue still one of making a stark choice between a publicly-funded service or transforming it into a commercial enterprise?
  2. Commercialization is widely seen as driving media standards down. How far can they go? Newspapers in particular are struggling to survive and fulfilling popular demand for entertainment, rather than information and education, may be the only way many of them can secure their futures. A focus on sex, sleaze and sensation appears to have fuelled intrusions into personal privacy, particularly of so-called celebrities.

 Can the platforms for informative, public interest content survive, and if so, how will they be paid for?

Michael Bromley
School of Journalism and Communication,
Joyce Ackroyd Building,
The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia.