Draft Media Bill published to help public service broadcasters better compete with streaming giants

A photo of a person pointing a television remote towards a smart TV
  • Confirms plans to bring Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ under new Ofcom rules and ensure public service broadcasters’ on-demand services are easy to discover on smart TVs and streaming sticks
  • New reforms to guarantee access to UK radio on smart speakers and cut red tape on commercial stations
  • Streaming services will be required to provide subtitles, audio description and signing to support people with disabilities

Britain’s biggest broadcasters will get new privileges and freedoms to make more hit shows and better compete with global streaming giants under new draft legislation published today.

The draft Media Bill will enable public service broadcasters (PSBs) – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, STV and S4C – to unleash their potential to grow, 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 be banned from charging stations for being hosted on their services or overlaying their own adverts over the 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. The reduced bureaucracy these changes will deliver could save the radio industry up to £1 million 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 per cent since 2011, and 68 per cent among 16-24s.

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 £1.2 billion 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.

Dame Carolyn McCall, Chief Executive, ITV plc said:

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.

Maria Kyriacou, Paramount Global’s President for Broadcast & Studios, International Markets, said:

We welcome the publication of the draft Media Bill.  This is vitally important new legislation to ensure that prominence for Public Service Broadcasters is maintained in the age of the smart TV.

We hope that Parliament supports and recognises the urgency of implementing this to underpin the health and vitality of our world-leading British broadcasting and creative sector – and protect it for the future.

It’s particularly pleasing that Channel 5’s PSB licence has also been renewed, which is great recognition of the ongoing success of the channel and its important role in the public service ecology of the UK.

The Media Bill will 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 per cent of their programmes, while 10 per cent must have audio description and 5 per cent 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 will boost 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.

Matt Payton, CEO of Radiocentre, 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 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 remains fully committed to introducing the Bill as soon as Parliamentary time allows.

Notes to Editors

  • Today (Wednesday 29 March) the Culture Secretary has confirmed she is allowing Ofcom to proceed with the renewal of the Channel 3 (C3) and Channel 5 (C5) licences. This is in recognition of the valuable role ITV, STV and Channel 5 continue to play in the UK as current holders of these licences.

  • The current C3 and C5 licences give ITV, STV and Channel 5 several benefits – including a prominent position in UK electronic programme guides – in return for PSB obligations such as quotas on news and current affairs provision and independent productions. Ofcom will lead the renewal process and current licensees have until 30 April 2023 to apply to renew their licence.

  • The government has committed to raising the level of Channel 4’s independent production quota, which will be done via secondary legislation, and continues to work closely with industry to consider additional protections that will safeguard Channel 4’s important role supporting the production sector following these changes.

Further background on smart speaker rules

With the rapid growth of listening via voice-activated connected audio devices over recent years, UK radio is increasingly operating in an environment which is occupied by larger platforms with competing services and the capability to drive audiences elsewhere. This Bill will ensure that UK radio stations are not charged by these platforms for the provision of their live services to listeners, that platforms cannot overlay content (such as advertising) over the top of those services, and that stations are reliably provided in response to listeners’ voice commands. It will also enable broadcasters to request a default route for their stations to be delivered to listeners.

Further background on radio regulation changes

Commercial radio is regulated under legislation developed in the late 1980s, which is no longer fit for purpose as radio transitions from an analogue past to a digital future. As such, in February 2017, the Government launched a consultation outlining proposals to deregulate analogue commercial radio licensing.

This legislation delivers on that consultation, relaxing content and format requirements on commercial radio, allowing stations a much larger degree of flexibility to update or adapt their services without needing consent from Ofcom, thereby reducing the sector’s regulatory burdens and costs. The reforms will replace requirements based on commitments given in licence applications (in some cases 20 or 30 years ago) with new, clearer requirements for commercial stations to provide national and local news and relevant local information (traffic and travel) to reflect the importance and value of these services to the public. The reforms also include additional provisions to help manage an eventual switchover of radio to digital and to enable Ofcom to licence overseas radio stations.

Further background on new public service remit for TV

The draft Bill replaces the outdated purposes and objectives for UK PSBs, set out in the Communications Act 2003 and in their individual licences, with a new remit which is better suited for the digital age.

This will allow them to focus on the content that they are uniquely positioned to deliver and which would make the UK poorer as a nation – culturally, economically and democratically – if it was not provided. This includes public service children’s programming and programmes made by independent producers or outside London.

The PSBs will be given greater flexibility as to how they deliver on their obligations, making it easier to share distinctively British programming and impartial news with viewers on a range of platforms, including on-demand services. Online programming will now count towards meeting their public service remit, not just on linear TV channels, as it stands today. Ofcom will get new powers, where appropriate and proportionate, to require PSBs to provide more of a particular type of programming if audiences are being underserved.

Further background on prominence rules

Major online TV platforms used by a significant number of UK viewers – such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks – will be legally required to carry and prominently feature designated PSB services, such as on-demand platforms like BBC iPlayer, ITVX, All 4, My5, S4C’s Clic and STV Player. This will help ensure distinctly British programming remains easy to find as viewing increasingly shifts online, and UK audiences can readily find the content they value when they turn on their TV.

Further background on content standards for video-on-demand programming

According to Ofcom, younger adults watch almost seven times less broadcast TV than those aged 65 and over. Nine out of ten 18-24 year old adults bypass TV channels and head straight to streaming services.
Ofcom notes that one in five UK households, or 5.2 million homes, are signed up to all three of the most popular streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. But most video-on-demand services are not covered by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which sets the content standards for harmful, offensive and accurate material found on television. Some services are not regulated in the UK at all.

Further background on the listed events regime

The listed events regime – which helps ensure events of national interest are available to view live and for free by the widest possible audience – will be updated to make qualification dependent on being free to air and a PSB. Listed events include major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, FIFA  World Cup, FA Cup Final, Grand National and Wimbledon finals. It will mean that PSBs will continue to benefit from the regime in the future and audiences can continue to access these events for free.

Listed events are set by the Culture Secretary. Once listed, broadcasting rights to these events must be made available for purchase to ‘qualifying broadcasters’ – those which reach 95 per cent coverage of UK viewers and at no additional cost to the viewer than the licence fee. All services which currently qualify are operated by the free-to-air terrestrial PSBs.

DCMS continues to review whether digital rights should be included in the listed events regime. Further detail on the review will be set out in due course.

Published 28 March 2023