A damning parliamentary inquiry into the state of U.K. broadcasters and their battle with American streaming giants has found that domestic channels are being “let down” by antiquated legislation preventing them from competing on a level playing ground.
The inquiry, which does not hold back in its criticism of Boris Johnson’s government, is calling for a new broadcasting act that will empower the likes of the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to better compete with SVODs such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney Plus and find prominence on digital platforms. Broadcasters are also being asked to “help themselves” by collaborating on a single VOD offering, akin to the existing BritBox U.K.
The inquiry was launched by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, a group that scrutinizes the spending and policies of the DCMS. The outfit launched the probe into the future of public service broadcasting in March 2020, interviewing a range of broadcast and streaming executives over the course of a year. The committee — which isn’t a government committee, but rather a select committee of the House of Commons with a key role in holding ministers to account — published its findings on Wednesday.
A range of recommendations are proposed, many of them encouraging the government to help broadcasters become more accessible for viewers and better regulate the SVOD giants and their “undue influence over the ability of consumers to access public service broadcasting content online and through streaming.”
One proposal actually calls on the government to make “international manufacturers aware of the importance of prominence of PSB content to the U.K.” This effectively encourages smart TV manufacturers, for example, to ensure that alongside the “Netflix” and “Amazon” buttons on a remote control, a “BBC iPlayer” button is immediately visible as a handy shortcut.
There is also staunch criticism of the government’s handling of the BBC’s funding dilemma. Under the current BBC license fee model, everyone using the Beeb’s services in the U.K. must pay an annual fee of £157 ($135), soon rising to £159 — money that is then used to fund BBC programs. The model has been under threat for a number of years, but it has effectively been in crisis mode under Johnson’s government, which has promised reform in the not-so-distant future.
DCMS Committee chair Julian Knight, however, argues that this reform hasn’t come soon enough.
“It’s clear that the BBC TV license fee has a limited shelf life in a digital media landscape. However, the government has missed the boat to reform it,” said Knight. “Instead of coming up with a workable alternative, it has sealed its own fate through a failure to develop a broadband infrastructure that would allow serious consideration of other means to fund the BBC.”
He notes that in order to allow public service broadcasters “to compete in a digital world,” the government must renew broadcasting laws that are nearly 20 years out of date.
“It’s a question of prominence — too often public service broadcasters lose out on dominant platforms with content that’s hard to find or isn’t branded,” said Knight.
“However, there is more that public service broadcasters should be doing for themselves and only by pooling resources can they hope to compete with the likes of Netflix and the platforms. The collaboration by the BBC and ITV on ‘BritBox’ is a striking example of how they can work together to create a ‘one stop shop’ for video on demand content — a model for future work,” added Knight.
In response to the inquiry, the BBC said it welcomed the “thorough and detailed report.”
“It is an endorsement of the crucial role played by public service broadcasters and the BBC as well as a clear call to build a strong future. We welcome the conclusion that the licence fee is the best way of funding a universal BBC,” said a BBC spokesperson.
“We’re also pleased to see the committee call for updated legislation to ensure the BBC is prominent on digital platforms so audiences can easily find public service programmes and agree that changes should be made to the BBC’s regulation to ensure we can respond quickly to audience expectations online.”
The inquiry made a series of conclusions and recommendations. Key points are outlined below:
— An updating of the 2003 Communications Act to grant broadcasters prominence that extends beyond the Electronic Programme Guide. This would effectively safeguard the public’s exposure to broadcasters and their brands by ensuring their content is easily recognizable on VOD platforms and that they have dedicated shortcuts on smart TVs and remote controls.
— The government should seek to publish the Bill in draft in the upcoming parliamentary session, ahead of finding time to introduce and enact the legislation before the end of 2022.
— The government needs to provide some certainty around the issue of decriminalizing non-payment of the BBC license fee (meaning that those who don’t pay the fee won’t necessarily get a criminal record).
— The government either needs to come out with an alternative to the license fee that it can put to parliament, “or strongly support the current model for at least the next Charter period (2028–2038) and actively aid the BBC in driving down evasion.” The committee looks at a number of different funding models from various countries, but concludes that none are better than the current system.
— Expectations for, and the remits of, public service broadcasters have to be realistic in relation to the available funding. If budgets continue to decline in real terms, the government should review the expectations set for broadcasters.
— Content from broadcasters should be labelled clearly and branded with logos.
— Streamers should be required to share top-line viewing data (or at least the number of views) of broadcasters’ content with both the broadcasters as well as Ofcom to ensure they can make a full analysis of their reach. Streaming services are an important ‘second window’ for PSB content but without viewer data, it is difficult to fully assess the reach of PSBs.
— Ofcom is encouraged to introduce requirements for the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), LGBTQ+ and disabled people in commissioning and senior production roles to improve authentic on-screen representation of the U.K.’s diverse communities.
— Media regulator Ofcom is advised to review the quality and relevance of the local and regional news provision.