The UK government has confirmed this week that major changes are on the way for the region’s broadcasters.
A white paper published on Thursday (April 28) includes plans intended to boost the UK’s domestic public service broadcasters (PSBs) and allow them to compete fairly with international competitors such as major streaming services, which, if the government has its way, will be subject to stricter content regulation in the near future.
The broadcasting remit will be overhauled and simplified, according to a statement from the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with a new definition on what it means to be a public service broadcaster, and a focus on creating distinctive shows that reflect British culture, support domestic film and TV production, and provide impartial and accurate news.
‘Public service content’ as a term will be broadened to include culturally relevant content reflecting all parts and people of the UK, economically important content and democratically impactful content like impartial news and current affairs.
PSBs will also be expected to contribute to this remit and be accountable for its contributions. While these broadcasters are currently only credited for meeting the minimum quota of ‘public service content’ if it airs on main lineal channels, the UK government plans to offer more flexibility by allowing for this content to be delivered on a wider range of services, like on-demand platforms.
“Rapid changes in technology, viewing habits and the entrance of global players have introduced new challenges for British broadcasters,” said Nadine Dorries, the secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
“Against that backdrop of rapid change, we need to take action to support British broadcasters in meeting the most pressing of those challenges, to protect our mixed ecology, and ensure public service broadcasters remain at the heart of our plans.”
Popular online TV platforms like smart TVs, pay TV services and streaming sticks will be legally required to carry PSB on-demand services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, STV Player, All 4, My5 and S4C Clic, which will all in turn be legally required to offer their on-demand services to these platforms. The PSB on-demand services will also need to be given prominence, and be easy to find on user interfaces.
Currently, the first five channels in the UK are required to be PSBs, making them easy to find, but similar regulations don’t exist for their on-demand platforms.
Ofcom, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, will be given new enforcement powers, including information gathering powers and the ability to impose fines, as well as a dispute resolution function to intervene and support effective negotiations between platforms and PSBs.
More details on various points within the white paper are below.
Channel 4 sale
Also highlighting the proposed changes is the UK government’s intention to pursue a change of ownership at Channel 4, to make it a privately-owned public service broadcaster like ITV and Channel 5.
Under new ownership, Channel 4 will be allowed to produce and sell its own content, while still being required to commission a minimum volume of programming from independent producers, in line with quotas on other PSBs. C4′s existing obligations for regional production outside of London and England will also be maintained.
In response to the white paper, Channel 4 said it “will study the White Paper issued by DCMS, and a considered response will follow. However, Channel 4 remains committed to upholding and maximizing its remit and public service purpose that has enabled it to shape Britain’s creative culture and make a significant contribution to the creative industries, while also investing across the UK’s Nations and Regions to create local and regional economic and social benefit.”
Offers for the channel are expected to be tabled in 2023, with the sale due to be completed in early 2024, ahead of an anticipated UK general election in May of that year. The sale is expected to raise more than £1 billion, which government ministers have said will be re-invested in Britain’s creative industries.
Regulation of harmful content on VoD
The proposed regulations include plans that aim to better protect viewers of on-demand services from “harmful content.”
The UK government intends to give Ofcom powers to draft and enforce a new Video-on-Demand Code, similar to the Broadcasting Code and in line with its standards, enforcing stricter rules on VoD services. These regulations are primarily aimed at TV-like services such as Netflix, ITV Hub and NOW TV.
UK viewers will also be given new powers to complain to Ofcom if they see concerning content, and in turn, Ofcom will be given more strength to assess on-demand providers’ audience protection measures such as age ratings and viewer guidance, with powers to force changes if needed. The maximum fine for regulated VoD services will be £250,000 or an amount up to five per cent of an organization’s revenue, whichever is higher.
Moving against ‘super-indies’
The UK film and TV production sector’s growth has led to the rise of the ‘super-indies.’ These companies, often with several subsidiaries under their umbrellas, can still currently be classified as independent, but that are often larger than the broadcasters with which they work. The UK government is reviewing whether to introduce a revenue cap for ‘qualifying independent’ producer status.
The government says it is also moving to protect the UK’s terms of trade, a set of rules introduced in 2004 that exist to protect independent producers when negotiating deals for new shows. The government plans to update the rules to address the increasing importance of on-demand commissioning to PSBs and independent producers.
“Distinctively British” content
Furthermore, the UK government will launch a consultation on potential new rules to ensure PSBs continue to commission “distinctively British” programming. The government will consider a range of options including incorporating requirements directly into the existing quota system.
Non-fiction British series such as The Great British Bake Off, Top Gear and Planet Earth were listed as examples of international hits that reflect a modern vision of the UK. The globalization of broadcasting has led to more content being set in non-specific locations in or out of the UK, with an international cast speaking in U.S. English, a statement from the government read. The UK government’s concern is that British series will become indistinguishable from titles produced elsewhere, and become less relevant for UK audiences while “reducing UK soft power abroad.”