UK media regulator Ofcom has warned that the British government urgently needs to overhaul broadcasting laws if public service broadcasters, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5, are to survive in the age of streaming.
Ofcom published early findings from its landmark review of public service broadcasting today following conversations with audiences of all ages across the UK and more than 70 industry players, including broadcasters, streamers, academics, and analysts.
Broadcasting laws have not been significantly updated since the 2003 Communications Act. This was before wi-fi internet became readily available in the UK, Netflix was still a DVD company, and Amazon had just posted a profit for the first time. In short, the world was incredibly different.
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Ofcom called for “radical” changes to primary legislation in the UK that would give public service broadcasters, or PSBs for short, greater prominence on TV menus so that valuable content, such as news, does not get crowded out. Ofcom also wants to draw up new targets for PSBs and give them greater choice over how to achieve them.
Furthermore, Ofcom is inviting views on changes to rules that will ensure PSB content is carried on different online platforms, while it will also review how the likes of the BBC and ITV are engaging with the UK production sector to establish whether current quotas are fit for purpose. PSBs must source at least a quarter of their programming from independent producers.
Ofcom said no other country in the world has the same “blend or breadth” of public and commercial broadcasting as the UK, but the nation is falling behind others in updating TV regulation. It pointed to France introducing a levy on U.S. streamers to fund local production, while Ofcom added that Australia has also established requirements for SVoDs to invest in domestic content.
Alongside regulatory changes, Ofcom also raised questions about the future funding of PSB content in the UK amid what it described as the “triple threat” of falling ad revenue, the cost of needing to grow digital services while maintaining traditional ones, and the quickening shift to online players amid the pandemic.
The regulator raised the idea of cross-media funding, such as a local or regional news fund, supporting collaboration between TV, radio, online, and the press. It said a shift to subscription, such as the BBC and ITV’s joint-venture, BritBox, would need to preserve the “fundamental” public service media principle of universality.
Elsewhere, Ofcom said the government could encourage other companies to become public service media providers in the UK through tax reliefs and promises of prominence. In practice, this could see the likes of Netflix being incentivized to commission content that serves specific audience needs in the UK. Ofcom added that better partnerships between PSBs, particularly on platforms and distribution, could also help public service TV thrive.
Ofcom CEO Dame Melanie Dawes said: “Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world. But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets. For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules, and build a stronger system of public-service media that can flourish in the digital age.”
Ofcom will now consult on its early proposals until March 16, 2021. It will make final recommendations to the government on safeguarding the UK’s broadcasting ecology next summer.
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