Updated with BBC response: The BBC must reform its operating license to focus on online services or “become out of step with audience behavior and technology developments,” according to British media regulator Ofcom.
Failure to act “could stand in the way of the BBC’s transformation,” it added in a series of proposals set out today centered around modernizing the broadcaster’s operating license.
Ofcom’s report acknowledges the BBC remains “at the heart of the UK’s broadcasting sector” and has been transforming and modernizing its approach in the face of disruption brought about by global streaming services.
Broadly, this could be achieved by better incorporating online services such as streamer BBC iPlayer, audio service BBC Sounds and the BBC website; allowing the BBC more flexibility to respond to new audience needs (while ring-fencing quotas around areas such as news and current affairs programming); and “greater transparency” from the BBC.
Key to these changes would be making “important” content more easily discoverable on its online services, and reducing the focus on quotas for “at-risk” genres such as arts and music, religious programmes, content for children and comedy, and where original programs first run.
Among the proposals was a plan to drop the amount of original productions on arts channel BBC Four from 75% in peak/prime-time to 60% in ‘all hours.’ The channel is one of the services BBC Director General Tim Davie has earmarked to be cut as part of plans to save around £1.5B ($2B) over the next few years.
The regulator also also noted its own approach to regulation should change, moving away from a focus on TV and radio quotas and towards better acknowledgement of online audience behavior.
The current BBC operating licence was created in 2017, when Ofcom took over the regulation of the BBC. With streamers such as Apple TV+ and Peacock now active alongside Amazon Prime Video and Netflix (and with Paramount+ launching today), the regulator believes the current model needs an overhaul to better equip the BBC to compete.
The British government makes a similar argument to explain its desire to sell rival BBC public broadcaster Channel 4 into private hands.
With the BBC’s current Charter, which dictates how it operates over set periods of time, at its halfway stage, Ofcom has warned the broadcaster over its complaints procedures and concerns over impartiality.
In total, 11% of British adults had cause to complain about the BBC in the last year, according to Ofcom. This was almost double the rate for ITV (6%) and triple Channel (4%), though lower when compared with other industries such as online retail and energy.
However, only 21% understood the ‘BBC First’ complaints process and just 7% were fully aware of the steps to fully register a grievance. Furthermore, less than 20% were happy with how their complaint had been handled and half said the process takes too long.
“Ofcom is clear that the BBC needs to make its complaints process simpler and more straightforward for people to navigate,” said the regulator. “It must also be more transparent and open about its decision-making.”
A BBC spokesperson issued a response this morning: “Like any organisation we work to make continuing improvements, which is why we published a 10-point plan on impartiality and editorial standards last year. Everyone knows this is an absolute priority for the BBC, and Ofcom rightly recognises impartiality is a complex area, audiences hold us to a higher standard than other broadcasters and that we have a good record of complying with broadcasting rules. In addition, the BBC has the most thorough and transparent complaints process in UK media and we are committed to being accessible and accountable to our audiences. We will work with Ofcom to make further improvements to this system.”
Ofcom’s consultation is open until 14 September 2022. An updated licence is expected in early next year, taking effect on 1 April, 2023.
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