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The conservative U.K. government, led by Boris Johnson, is eyeing regulations for streaming services, protections for “distinctly British” content and an updated remit for public service broadcasters, such as the BBC and ITV, in a revamp for the digital age, according to a white paper focused on broadcasting and related sectors.
“TV and radio lovers will enjoy a new golden age of programming as the government updates decades-old broadcasting regulations to give the U.K.’s vital public service system a deal fit for the streaming age,” a summary of the white paper promises. After all, changes in technology, viewing habits and the emergence of global media and streaming giants have created challenges for U.K. networks and producers.
One key proposal calls for the development of “measures to protect audiences from a wider range of harmful material – such as unchallenged health claims – while watching programs on video-on-demand services,” the summary says. “These services will be brought under U.K. jurisdiction and subject to a Video-on-Demand Code similar to the Broadcasting Code, enforced by (media regulator) Ofcom.” Fines for breaches could be up to £250,000 ($314,000) or 5 percent of annual revenue, whichever is higher, according to the government.
Among the other goals cited in the white paper are “boosting” public service broadcasters (PSBs) and developing a streamlined remit for them that will replace a “complicated set of ‘purposes’ and ‘objectives’ from laws made in 2003,” with a new definition of what it means to be a PSB, including offering “distinctive, diverse British content” that reflects British culture, supporting homegrown film and TV production and providing “impartial and accurate news.”
The government also confirmed it plans to move ahead with its goal of privatizing Channel 4 and ending a rule that effectively prohibits it from producing and selling its own content. “This will allow it to diversify its revenue streams and improve its long-term sustainability,” argued Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. “Channel 4 will still be required to commission a minimum volume of programming from independent producers, in line with the quotas placed on other PSBs, to protect its contribution to the sector.” The government said it will also look to use some of the proceeds from the sale of Channel 4 to “deliver a new creative dividend for the sector.”
And sports rights are also in line for a closer look by the government. The white paper proposes that “the opportunity to secure rights to air TV’s major sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup and Wimbledon, be made an exclusive PSB benefit via reforms to the listed events regime. A review will also look at adding digital and on-demand rights to the scheme to ensure free-to-view access for the nation when watching the ‘crown jewels’ of sport on digital platforms.”
Here is a closer look at some topics touched on by the white paper.
Public service broadcasters
Britain’s PSBs are the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Paramount Global’s Channel 5.
“While making sure PSBs continue to serve audiences across the UK with universally-available high-quality programming, they will be given greater freedom and flexibility in how they can fulfil their public service obligations,” a summary of the white paper says. “They will be allowed to meet their public service requirements showing content on online platforms instead of just on their main channels as it stands today.”
The government also wants to legislate to ensure PSB content “is always carried and easy to find for U.K. audiences on connected devices and major online platforms, including on smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks.”
A new remit, to be set out in further detail in the future, will recognize that “public service content takes many forms, including culturally relevant content reflecting all parts and people of the U.K.; economically important content produced by independent producers and across the U.K.; and democratically impactful content, such as trusted, impartial news and current affairs,” according to the new government paper. “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 via a quota system to air a minimum amount and variety of public service content, including content made outside of London, “but they currently only get credit for this if they show it on their main linear channel,” the government highlighted. It plans to 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.”
In terms of British shows, the white paper mentioned the likes of Doctor Who, I May Destroy You, The Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, Luther, Downton Abbey and Planet Earth, calling them “huge international hits” that “also reflect a vision of a modern U.K.” The government wants to launch a consultation on new rules to “make sure PSBs continue to commission ‘distinctively British’ programming – shows loved and admired not just at home but also around the world, because they could not have been made anywhere else.” A range of options will be considered, including incorporating requirements directly into the existing quota system.
The U.K. government also proposes a code for digital services to better protect consumers. “Ofcom estimates three in four U.K. households use a subscription video-on-demand service,” the summary of the white paper mentions. “But services like Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video are not regulated in the U.K. to the same extent as U.K. linear TV channels. Netflix and Apple TV+ are not regulated in the U.K. at all.”
Except for BBC catch-up service BBC iPlayer, on-demand services are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which defines harmful or offensive material, as well as accuracy, fairness and privacy requirements. “There are some protections for under-18s but minimal rules exist to protect audiences from, for example, misleading health advice or pseudoscience documentaries,” the paper highlights.
The government wants to give Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new code, similar to the Broadcasting Code, to ensure that streaming services, “which target and profit from U.K. audiences, are subject to stricter rules protecting U.K. audiences from harmful material.” Adds the white paper: “This will primarily be aimed at larger ‘TV-like’ video-on-demand services, such as Netflix, ITV Hub and (Sky’s) Now TV and level the rules between VOD services and traditional broadcasters.”
Viewers will also get “new powers to complain to Ofcom if they see something concerning,” the white paper says.
Channel 4 privatization
“Under public ownership, Channel 4 has limited ability to borrow money or raise private sector capital by issuing shares, and its current setup effectively stops it from making its own content,” the government white paper highlights. “This makes it heavily reliant on cyclical advertising revenues, which are moving to digital platforms.”
It sees Channel 4 “at a unique turning point.” While critics have opposed a privatization, with some calling for more support for the broadcaster, the government argues that “access to capital and the freedom to make and own content are important tools Channel 4 will need to succeed in the future, create new revenue streams and compete. The government believes the required investment to do this at scale and pace is best provided under private ownership, rather than asking taxpayers’ to bear the associated risk.”
Support for independent TV producers
With the combined spend by film and high-end TV productions during 2021 reaching a record £5.64 billion ($7.08 billion), the government wants to ensure that “the U.K. remains a thriving TV production location by supporting screen industries through creative sector tax reliefs.”
The sector’s growth has, however, also led to the emergence of so-called “super indies,” which, “while still classed as independent, are often larger than the broadcasters with whom they work,” according to the government. “The government will review whether to introduce a revenue cap for ‘qualifying independent’ producer status to make sure it remains effective for promoting growth.”
Current rules designed to protect independent producers when negotiating deals for new shows should be updated “to address the increasing importance of on-demand commissioning to both PSBs and independent producers,” the white paper also says. “In addition, it will consider if there is a need to extend aspects of it to radio and audio producers, which create programming for the BBC.”
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