The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (“DCMS”) have published draft legislation that seeks to modernise broadcasting rules for both television and radio. Broadcast media has been hugely disrupted by technology: from subscription-based platforms, on-demand and internet-based services and smart speakers. The draft Media Bill, that was published today, aims to bring broadcasting legislation in line with these developments and to facilitate the streaming of high-quality programmes on British screens and airwaves.
1. Ofcom controls for video-on-demand services
The Bill proposes that video-on-demand (“VOD”) subscription services including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ become subject to Ofcom content standards that will protect viewers from harmful, offensive and inaccurate material. Bringing such services under a regime similar to that which already applies to traditional services will increase scrutiny and enhance audience protection. It is believed that this will equalise the market between VOD services and public service broadcasters (“PSBs”) and ensure safe viewership.
2. Streamlining of prominence rules
There has been a measurable decrease in ‘linear’ TV viewership, with a preference gradually moving towards VOD subscription-based services. The on-demand services of PSBs will, therefore, be given equal footing on internet-based systems such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks so that their content is discoverable and accessible to viewers online.
3. Accessibility of services
These proposals are compounded with a move to ensure that broadcast content is accessible to all viewers. This includes amendments to the listed events regime whereby events of national interest are available to view live and for free by a terrestrial PSB. The Bill proposes a new consistent subtitling scheme for both PSB and VOD providers as well as minimum requirements for audio description and signed interpretation on their offering to ensure that broadcast media continues to be enjoyed by all, including those with audio and visual impairments.
4. Public service expansions
Provider specific provisions will be put in place to enhance the offering of certain broadcasters such as license renewals of Channel 3 and Channel 5, independent production and content creation freedoms for Channel 4, and the removal of geographic restrictions for Welsh language broadcaster, S4C. The Government recognise the unique cultural value of the public system and it is believed that these regulatory changes will help to maintain this.
5. Relaxing of radio regulations
The Bill proposes to remove historic content restrictions on commercial radio stations, which will give providers increased flexibility on what they broadcast and allow them to adapt their services without needing to consult Ofcom. This will provide broadcasters with greater autonomy over the content of their service in relation to programmes, national and local news and travel information. Longer term, these reforms seek to facilitate a full move to solely digital services and for the licensing of overseas stations to fully expand and enhance radio broadcasts.
6. Increased accessibility
In a move to increase accessibility of all broadcasters, the Bill additionally proposes that platforms operating smart speakers will be required to provide access to all licensed radio stations, without charge or overlaying advertisement. Those offering smart speakers on the market will also have to demonstrate that voice command routes are reliable and accurate and ensure that default routes are available to deliver stations to listeners.
The proposals under the Draft Media Bill are aimed at ensuring that British content and production remains world leading and that traditional broadcasters are able to accommodate for changing viewing habits in a market that has been fiercely disrupted by global streaming giants and technological change. It is believed that the Bill represents a modern and flexible regime for British media, and to uphold the unique cultural and economic role it plays in media consumption.
DCMS have announced that the Bill will be examined by Parliament at the earliest opportunity.