Commercial TV and radio bosses have welcomed Government plans to give the UK’s biggest broadcasters new privileges and freedoms to better compete with global streaming giants under new draft legislation published today.
It is claimed the draft Media Bill will enable public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, STV and S4C – to grow faster, produce more top quality British content and invest in new technologies to keep viewers tuning in amid fierce competition from subscription-based online platforms.
It marks the next step in the Government’s plan to modernise decades-old broadcasting legislation outlined in a white paper last year. In addition, new reforms have been added to protect the position of UK radio on smart speakers as listeners increasingly move away from AM and FM stations in favour of internet-based services.
Smart speaker platforms – such as Google and Amazon – will be required by law to ensure access to all licenced UK radio stations, from major national stations to the smallest community stations. Platforms will also be banned from charging stations for being hosted on their services or overlaying their own ads on top of those stations’ programmes.
The Bill will also reduce regulatory burdens on commercial radio stations, relaxing content and format requirements developed in the 1980s which tie them to commitments to broadcast particular genres of music or to particular age groups.
The new regime will give stations more flexibility to update or adapt their services without needing consent from Ofcom. Minister claim the reduced bureaucracy these changes will deliver could save the radio industry up to £1m per year.
TV-focused measures include bringing mainstream video-on-demand (VoD) services consumed in the UK – such as Netflix and Disney+ – under a new Ofcom content code, to protect audiences from a wider range of harmful material – such as misleading health claims.
The latest research from Ofcom indicates that traditional ‘linear’ TV viewing – where viewers watch programmes broadcast at a scheduled time usually via terrestrial or satellite – is down more than 25% since 2011, and 68% among 16- to 24-year-olds.
The draft Bill includes action to ensure video on demand viewers can more easily discover public service broadcast services such as BBC iPlayer and ITVX on smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. It also includes new rules to make video on demand content more accessible to those with seeing and hearing impairments.
The new laws will introduce simpler, more flexible rules on what TV programmes public service broadcasters are required to show, meaning these broadcasters – who commission around £1.2bn in programming each year, with almost all of it spent in the UK – will be better equipped to adapt to changing viewer habits as people increasingly watch TV on digital devices instead of traditional ‘linear’ TV.
Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said: “Technology has revolutionised the way people enjoy TV and radio. The battle to attract and retain audiences has never been more fierce. British content and production is world leading but changes to viewing habits have put traditional broadcasters under unprecedented pressure.
“These new laws will level the playing field with global streaming giants, ensuring they meet the same high standards we expect from public service broadcasters and that services like iPlayer and ITVX are easy to find however you watch TV.
“Our Bill will give these brilliant broadcasters and our legendary radio industry the tools to keep doing what they do best – nurturing the creative talent and skills that fuel the UK’s booming production industry, whilst making outstanding shows that we can all enjoy.”
ITV chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall added: “We welcome the publication of the Media Bill today as a decisive staging post on the journey to a modern and flexible regulatory regime for TV and media in the UK. This Bill will modernise the framework for a Public Service Broadcasting system that is the cornerstone of the £116bn creative economy.
“The UK is a global leader in the creative industries and this legislation will help to maintain and strengthen that position. Given the profound and dynamic changes in the global media ecology the need is urgent and we would encourage the Government to ensure the Bill becomes law as soon as possible.”
Radiocentre chief executive Matt Payton said: “With more radio listening than ever now taking place online and on smart speakers, it’s only sensible that the Government introduces safeguards for the future that will guarantee consumer choice and support the public value provided by UK radio services.
“The commercial radio sector welcomes this important recognition of the vital role that it plays in the media landscape. We’re also pleased to see legislation that will finalise commercial radio deregulation, enabling stations to focus on producing great content that listeners want to hear.”
The Media Bill is designed to level the playing field between public service broadcasters and video-on-demand services. For the first time, UK-focused mainstream VoD services will be brought under rules similar to those that already apply to linear TV. It will mean that UK audiences, especially children, are better and more consistently protected from harmful material.
For the first time, VoDs will have to provide subtitles on 80% of their programmes, while 10% must have audio description and 5% signed interpretation. Subtitles are carried on the majority of VoD programming, but this can be inconsistent across services and audio description and signing are rarer, so the Bill will help ensure those with disabilities can enjoy more of their favourite shows.
VoD viewers will now be able to formally complain to Ofcom, and the Bill will strengthen Ofcom’s duty to assess audience protection measures on VoDs such as age ratings and viewer guidance. Ofcom will have more robust powers to investigate and take action to enforce standards if they consider it appropriate, including issuing fines of up to £250,000 and – in the most serious and repeated cases – restricting a service’s availability in the UK.
Channel 4 will no longer be barred from producing its own content, if it chooses to do so, and will get a new legal duty to consider its long-term sustainability alongside the delivery of its public service remit, which will ensure this globally renowned broadcaster can continue to produce high impact, distinctive shows long into the future.
The draft Bill is also aimed at boosting S4C, the Welsh language broadcaster, by removing geographic restrictions – confirming it can broaden its reach in the UK and beyond and offer its content on a range of new digital services, and will ensure major TV sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup remain free to watch by as many people as possible.
It also delivers on the Government’s commitment to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which is not in force, but would require news publishers to pay both sides’ costs in any legal proceedings if not a member of an approved regulator.
The publication of the Bill in draft will allow for further engagement with the industry to ensure these major reforms deliver for broadcasters and viewers. The Government maintains it is fully committed to introducing the Bill as soon as Parliamentary time allows, although with a packed schedule this is unlikely to be until next year.
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