Big Changes Will Equal the Playing Field for U.K. Broadcasters, Promises Government in New White Paper

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Tectonic changes are on the horizon for Britain’s broadcasters.

Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday will lay out plans to update decades-old regulations and allow broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to “compete fairly” with their competitors (namely the likes of Netflix and Amazon’s Prime Video) and support the local production sector. The changes will be set out in a “Broadcasting White Paper,” for which a preview was shared with media on Wednesday evening, local time.

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“U.K. public service broadcasters will no longer be subject to a complicated set of ‘purposes’ and ‘objectives’ from laws made in 2003,” reads a statement from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. “Their remit will be overhauled and simplified, with a new definition of what it means to be a PSB [public-service broadcaster] and a focus on creating distinctive shows which reflect British culture, support domestic film and TV production, and provide impartial and accurate news.”

A number of significant changes stand to overhaul the landscape for U.K. broadcasters: New legislation will ensure their content is easy to find on connected devices and major online platforms (an issue commonly referred to as ‘prominence’); new standards for streamers will strive to protect audiences from “harmful material,” such as unchallenged health claims; and broadcasters — which will be subject to new “Rules for Britishness” — will be allowed to meet their public service requirements by showing content on online platforms instead of only on their main channels, as is the current law.

The government has also suggested that only public-service broadcasters have the opportunity to secure rights to air TV’s major sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon. This would become “an exclusive PSB benefit,” and a review would look at adding digital and on-demand rights to the scheme to ensure free-to-view access when watching the “’crown jewels’ of sport” on a streamer. This change, in particular, would be a major disruptor for a service like Amazon, which has bet big on sports rights in the U.K.

Meanwhile, the government has reiterated plans to privatize “It’s a Sin” and “Derry Girls” broadcaster Channel 4 in order to “give it the tools it needs to succeed in the future as a public service broadcaster while protecting its distinctiveness.”

As a private entity, Channel 4 will be able to produce and sell its own content, which it does not do currently. However, it’ll still be required to commission a certain amount of programming from independent producers. Further, despite being under private ownership, the government also expects Channel 4 to maintain its remit to provide distinctive and experimental programming. Proceeds of the channel’s sale will be used to set up a “creative dividend” for the sector.

The government has said it “intends to legislate [on Channel 4] as soon as the parliamentary timetable allows.”

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who is now seven months into her post, said of the new regulations: “Set against the backdrop of the digital transformation of our viewing habits, today’s plans will revamp decades-old laws to help our public service broadcasters compete in the internet age and usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio. This will provide jobs and growth in the future along with the content we all love.”

THE FINE PRINT

A new public service remit for TV

  • The U.K.’s public service broadcasters (PSBs) are the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5. The PSB system makes sure viewers can access a wide range of public service content on a free-to-air basis.

  • The PSB remit is from an analogue age. Its last update was reforms to the Communications Act in 2003 as a set of 14 overlapping and outdated ‘purposes’ and ‘objectives’ for broadcasters.

  • New rules will broaden the definition of ‘public service content’ to include culturally relevant content reflecting all parts and people of the U.K.; economically important content; and democratically impactful content such as impartial news and current affairs. It will also be made clearer that PSBs must contribute to this remit and will be accountable for the extent of their contributions.

  • PSBs are required through a quota system to broadcast a minimum amount and variety of public service content (for example, programs made outside of London), but they currently only get credit for this if they show it on their main linear channel (so in the case of ITV, on ITV1). The government will give PSBs greater flexibility to meet their obligations, including reaching audiences by delivering content on a wider range of services including via on-demand platforms.

Rules for Britishness are coming

  • The government has listed a selection of shows that “reflect a vision of the modern U.K.” They include: “Dr Who,” “I May Destroy You,” “Great British Bake Off,” “Top Gear,” “Luther,” “Downton Abbey” and “Planet Earth.”

  • It warns, however, that the globalization of broadcasting means “more of the content people watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the U.K., with an international cast, communicating in U.S. English.” This, they say, risks TV made in the U.K. “becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for U.K. audiences, as well as reducing U.K. soft power abroad.”

  • Research by Enders Analysis has apparently shown that U.K. originals from streamers such as Netflix have had fewer British terms, expressions, reference points or idioms than equivalent broadcast programs.

  • As a result, a consultation will be launched on new rules to make sure PSBs continue to commission “distinctively British’ programming.” It will consider a range of options including incorporating requirements directly into the existing quota system.

Regulation of streaming services

  • British media regulator Ofcom estimates that 3 in 4 U.K. households use a subscription video-on-demand (VOD) service. However, streamers like Disney+ and Amazon’s Prime Video are not regulated in the U.K. in the same way linear TV channels are. Further, Netflix and Apple TV+ aren’t regulated in the U.K. at all.

  • Except for BBC iPlayer, on-demand services are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code which sets standards for content including harmful or offensive material, accuracy, fairness and privacy. There are some protections for under-18s but minimal rules exist to protect audiences from, for example, misleading health advice or pseudoscience documentaries.

  • The government will give Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new Video-on-Demand Code to make sure VOD services are subject to stricter rules protecting U.K. audiences from harmful material. This will primarily be aimed at larger VOD services such as Netflix, ITV Hub (soon to be ITVX) and Sky’s Now TV.

  • U.K. viewers will be given new powers to complain to Ofcom if they see something concerning and will be better protected from harmful material. Ofcom will have more powers to regulate measures such as age ratings and viewer guidance, with powers to force changes if necessary.

  • The maximum fine for regulated VOD services will be £250,000 or an amount up to 5% of an organization’s revenue (whichever is higher).

Live sports coverage

  • The U.K.’s current “listed events regime” ensures that events of national interest are available to view live, and for free, by the widest possible audience. The list is set by the Culture Secretary and includes the ‘crown jewels’: major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, men’s football World Cup, FA Cup Final, Grand National and Wimbledon finals.

  • Once listed, broadcasting rights to these events must be made available for purchase first to ‘qualifying broadcasters’ — those which reach 95% of U.K. viewers and at no additional cost to the viewer than the license fee. All services which currently qualify are operated by the free-to-air terrestrial PSBs.

  • The government now wants to designate listed events as a “PSB-specific benefit.”

  • The government is also looking closely at digital rights around these events. For example, if an Olympic 100m final was broadcast live in the middle of the night on the BBC but all streaming and catch-up rights were sold to a different broadcaster and kept behind a paywall, a culturally relevant event might not be available to a wide audience on a free-to-air basis.

  • A review will look at whether the scope of the listed events regime should be extended to include digital rights.

Prominence

  • Current broadcasting legislation guarantees that the first five channels the public finds when they switch on their TVs are PSBs. However, the rules do not extend to on-demand platforms.

  • The government will update ‘prominence’ rules so popular online TV platforms, which likely include smart TVs, pay TV services, streaming sticks and set top boxes, are legally required to carry designated PSB on-demand services and give them prominence so that they’re easier to find.

  • The rules will require PSBs to “offer” their on-demand services (BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4, My5, STV Player, S4C Clic) to platforms while requiring platforms to “carry” these PSB on-demand services.

  • Ofcom will have new information gathering powers and the ability to impose fines as appropriate.

Super-indies under threat?

  • The film and TV sector’s growth has facilitated the emergence of so-called ‘super indies’ which, while still classed as independent, are often larger than the broadcasters with whom they work. The government will review whether to introduce a revenue cap for ‘qualifying independent’ producer status to make sure it remains effective for promoting growth.

  • The government will also act to protect the U.K.’s Terms of Trade, which exist to protect independent producers when negotiating deals for new shows, and update it to address the increasing importance of on-demand commissioning to both PSBs and independent producers.

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