Ofcom proposes radical shake-up of UK broadcasting

Streaming firms could provide public service programming in an increasingly digital world

Streaming services, such as Netflix and Now TV, could be encouraged to provide public service programming as they become increasingly dominant players in the digital era, the UK’s television regulator has said.

In a report on how public service broadcasting (PSB) should adapt to the age of online viewing, Ofcom said the existing system was “unlikely to survive” and that new platforms should be obliged to feature traditional broadcasters’ streaming services prominently.

It suggested the rules governing the public service remit for broadcasters including the BBC should be radically overhauled, potentially allowing them to fulfil their obligations online instead of through traditional channels.

If Ofcom’s suggestions are implemented, they would represent the most radical revision to the rules governing broadcasting in the UK since streaming services began to challenge traditional outlets.

As companies from Apple to Disney muscle in with their own paid-for services, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have a precarious place in younger audiences’ viewing habits. While 67% of total viewing time in 2019 was to broadcast content, that figure fell to 38% among 16-34 year olds, Ofcom’s audience research found, with those viewers feeling “much less connection to the public service broadcasters” and sometimes only discovering their content via streaming services.

Two in five viewers of streaming services say they can imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time.

The regulator recognises the vast changes in the landscape since the last major updates to the regulatory framework in 2003 by setting out a transition from “public service broadcasting” to “public service media”.

The report says with the channels’ long-treasured position at the top of programming guides becoming a less important way of reaching audiences, a new “service neutral” system is needed – meaning broadcasters could decide for themselves the best venue for public service programming.

Some smart TVs have buttons taking viewers directly to the Amazon Prime or Netflix apps but may not even have the BBC or ITV versions on their platform. “We do think that sort of thing needs to be addressed,” said Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive. “If we don’t, then people just can’t find the content.”

Ofcom points to similar shake-ups around the world to adapt the rules for the new era, noting legislation in Canada and Germany that will oblige online platforms to make public service content available.

Meanwhile, the report argues, asking a new range of commercial companies to provide public service programming “could drive innovation, bringing different insights, experience and expertise to the PSM system”.

“Encouraging established or emerging brands, potentially those which already resonate with younger online audiences, should help create an environment where risks can be taken for providing and distributing UK content for audiences of all ages.”

The report suggests such a system could do a better job of reaching younger audiences through short-form or user-generated content than the main existing public service broadcasters, the BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5.

It also argues that global platforms such as Netflix and Apple TV “wield increasing power as the access point between audiences and content” and because they can strike international deals. “Services like Netflix are able to ensure they are front and centre across a wide range of TV platforms while the public service broadcasters find it increasingly difficult to secure similarly favourable terms for prominence,” the report says.

It says that only the BBC among the existing public service broadcasters “has the ‘must-have’ characteristics, such as scale and brand engagement, needed to bargain with content aggregators.”

Ofcom will consult on the report before making recommendations to the government next year.

In a statement accompanying the report, Dawes said broadcasters were facing “a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets.

“For everything we have gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there is an urgent need to reform the rules and build a stronger system of public service media that can flourish in the digital age.

“That could mean big changes, such as a wider range of firms tasked with providing high-quality shows made for, in and about the UK.”

But in an interview Dawes acknowledged that “your Amazons and Netflixes have been quite clear that they don’t want to get into the market” of providing specifically British programming with a public service remit. She suggested that there might be smaller players, or smartphone-based platforms like TikTok, which could provide new routes to public service media.

The BBC and Channel 4 both broadly welcomed the report, with a BBC spokesperson noting Ofcom’s conclusion “that public service broadcasters are highly valued by UK audiences” and saying that it was “pleased to see Ofcom’s call for regulatory reform that’s fit for a global, digital marketplace”.

Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s chief executive, said the broadcaster welcomed “Ofcom’s recognition today of the vital role we play supporting UK viewers and our world-leading creative economy”.

She added: “To thrive and have impact in a fully digital world we need viewers to be able to easily find our content, and so we’re particularly pleased to see Ofcom’s call for urgent regulatory and legislative reform on prominence and availability.”

Dawes said once a framework was set out it must be more flexible than the existing rules, in place for 17 years, had been. “There’s no point in casting this in stone in 2021,” she said. “You have to be able to adapt.”


Archie Bland

The GuardianTramp

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