Supporting UK broadcasting

22 July 2020

Supporting UK broadcasting

Helping broadcasters to thrive, and ensuring audiences are well served by high-quality programmes.

The future of public service broadcasting – Small Screen: Big Debate

Ofcom has a role to ensure the UK’s public service broadcasting (PSB) services continue to deliver for audiences. In February we published ‘Small Screen: Big Debate – A five-year review of public service broadcasting’, our view of how public service broadcasting has performed between 2014 and 2018.

This review built on findings in our second Media Nations report, published last summer, which reviewed key trends in the television and video sector as well as the radio and audio sector. Separately, we have also published a five-year review of the Channel 4 Corporation’s fulfilment of its content media duties.

Over the last year we set out our view that PSB is at a crucial juncture given changing audience behaviours and ever-increasing competition from global content providers. We decided now is the right time to consider fundamental questions about the future of PSB and in July 2019, we launched a nationwide debate to discuss the future of public service media – called Small Screen: Big Debate. Since then, we have organised discussions with audiences, broadcasters, production companies, government, parliament, industry bodies, national and regional representatives, and others. More information on the progress of the debate can be found on our dedicated Small Screen: Big Debate website.

Over the next year we will continue with a range of activities around the Small Screen: Big Debate, asking what PSB should deliver, how it should be delivered and funded, and what regulatory and policy tools may be needed to ensure PSB content continues to be delivered in future. We are also considering the impact Covid-19 has had on the industry and the relationship audiences have with PSB.

The discussions in all the UK nations, together with our research, analysis and further evidence from stakeholders, will inform a consultation on options for the future of PSB which we plan to publish by the end of 2020. We will then invite views and evidence on these options before making recommendations to Government in 2021.

Review the guidance to public service broadcasters for production outside London

In June 2019 we published our final decisions on our regional production review and published updated guidance for the PSBs in meeting their quotas for making programmes outside of London.

The changes we have made include strengthening the criteria that define a regional production, excluding self-promotional content from counting towards the regional production quotas and adding more information to the guidance about each of the criteria and how they should be applied. To improve compliance and aid enforcement, we have also introduced spot-checks and a clearer reporting regime.

The new guidance comes into effect for programmes broadcast from January 2021. We believe our package of changes will bring more rigour and accountability to the regime, ensuring it better delivers the policy intention of supporting and stimulating the creative economies across the UK’s nations and regions.

Responding to Channel 4 Corporation’s annual Statement of Media Content Policy

Channel 4 Corporation (C4C) produces an annual Statement of Media Content Policy (SMCP) setting out how it delivered its public service remit and media content duties over the course of the previous year and how it plans to do so in the coming year. In preparing the SMCP, C4C must consult with us and each year we publish a response.

We published our response (PDF, 811.7 KB) to C4C’s 2018 SMCP when it published its Annual Report last June. We considered that C4C met its obligations well in 2018 in several important areas including spending on programmes in the nations and regions, its investment in content appealing to older children and teenagers, its commitment to diversity-related programmes and the performance of Film4 Productions. We identified some areas where C4C could do more, for example it did not show as many new ideas on screen or work with as many different producers compared with previous years.

As well as our annual review of C4C’s performance, this year we will consider C4C’s contribution to public service broadcasting, and if and how its obligations might need to change in the future, as part of our Small Screen: Big Debate programme of work.

Review of children’s content

PSB was designed by Parliament to make sure audiences can enjoy a wide range of high-quality programmes, including original content for children.

In July 2019, we published our view on ITV, Channel 4 Corporation and Channel 5’s responses to our Children’s Content Review. Each broadcaster had demonstrated a renewed commitment to children’s content, by creating and investing more in original UK programmes made just for UK children and teenagers, including live action, entertainment and news.
Taken together, our view is that their plans responded positively to the concerns we highlighted in our 2018 report. Importantly,  
the broadcasters’ plans also reflect the many ways younger audiences are now watching PSB content – live, on-demand and online.

We continue to work with the broadcasters on the delivery of their plans as well as monitoring children’s use and attitudes towards PSB.

PSB prominence and updating the electronic programme guide (EPG) code

In July 2019, we published a statement revising the prominence section of the linear electronic programme guide (EPG) Code. We have revised the EPG Code to ensure the main five PSB channels (BBC1, BBC2, Channel 3 services, Channel 4 and Channel 5) remain easy to find. We have also set minimum levels of prominence for other PSB and Local TV services. This will ensure that viewers can continue to find PSB channels easily and will make some PSB services easier to find. These revised sections of the Code are due to come into effect on 4 January 2021.

Alongside our revision of the EPG Code, we also published our recommendations to Government to protect the prominence of PSB, linear and on-demand services, online. Since then we have engaged extensively with industry stakeholders and with DCMS to consider how these new prominence rules would work in practice. We are also working with industry on whether new rules that guarantee the availability of PSB on-demand content may be desirable. These discussions will inform the options for the future of PSB, as part of our Small Screen: Big Debate work programme.

Audience expectations in a digital world

It is important that the rules we apply to broadcast and on-demand services reflect consumers’ changing viewing behaviours and expectations.

We commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct qualitative research to help us understand audiences’ changing attitudes towards content standards and their experiences of programmes across platforms including TV, radio, on demand, subscription and video sharing services.

Findings from the research, published in March 2020, included that participants considered:

  • content involving incitement to crime and hate speech to be the most serious;
  • harmful content should be prioritised over offensive content; and
  • offensive content which raises issues of discrimination is nevertheless a concern and should also be prioritised.

The full report is available on the Ofcom website.

A separate piece of research on the expectations of minority ethnic audiences has been commissioned, with a focus on harm and offence.

Protecting participants in TV and radio programmes

In early 2019, Ofcom’s Content Board had started to consider whether broadcasters should be required to safeguard the welfare of programme participants. Following this and news reports about The Jeremy Kyle Show, in July 2019 we consulted on proposed new rules to help protect the wellbeing of people taking part in programmes, including reality TV programmes. Our proposed rules were based on the concept of ‘due care’.

The consultation closed in September 2019. While there was overwhelming support for our policy aims, there were concerns expressed as to whether our proposed rules were the best method for achieving these. Having considered the points put forward, in March 2020 we published a further consultation asking for views on revised proposals. We aim to publish a Statement, new rules and detailed guidance in Autumn 2020.

Increasing the accessibility of TV and on- demand programme services (ODPS)

For people who are visually or hearing impaired, enjoying television can rely on high quality access services (subtitles, signing or audio description) accompanying programmes.

While many broadcasters are obliged to make their programmes accessible, the same is not true for on-demand providers and services. This year we worked with on-demand programme services (ODPS) providers, consumer groups, and the Government to establish how forthcoming regulations should work to improve the accessibility of ODPS. In December 2019, the Government wrote to us requesting that we conduct a second consultation on some practical aspects of the requirements, after which we will make further recommendations to the Government.

In due course, we also plan to consult on revisions to our best practice guidelines on television accessibility, expanding them to include guidance for on-demand providers.


Reviewing the BBC’s news and current affairs output

In 2019 we published an in-depth review of the BBC’s news and current affairs output. We asked people about their news habits, what matters to them about the news and current affairs they watch, listen to and read, and the role BBC news and current affairs plays in their lives.

We found that, despite an uncertain political environment, the BBC has broadly maintained its reputation for trusted and accurate reporting and remains the place people turn to, to find out about major and current events. Audiences told us they value the calibre of the BBC’s journalism.

For some the BBC’s unique history was a source of strength, however for others this heritage led them to question the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting. We also found that the BBC could do better at representing the whole of the UK. In relation to online provision, we concluded that BBC News needs to do more to stand out or risk losing its reputation and status as a trusted voice.

We have continued to engage with the BBC on the steps it is taking in response to each of our recommendations. To ensure transparency, we expect the BBC to report on progress against these in its next annual report.

Material changes to BBC public service activities

In 2018/19, we directed the BBC to undertake a Public Interest Test (PIT) on its proposed changes to BBC iPlayer, which included making available all new programmes on BBC iPlayer for 12 months as standard.

In April 2019, the BBC said the proposals satisfied the PIT, as any impacts on fair and effective competition would be justified by the public value the changes would generate for audiences.

We undertook a competition assessment and sought evidence from stakeholders on how the BBC’s proposals would affect their existing businesses or investment plans. We decided that the BBC should be able to go ahead with its proposals, subject to conditions and guidance,  as we considered it was crucial that the BBC  were able to evolve the iPlayer to meet the changing expectations of audiences.

The BBC’s commercial and trading activities

We monitor the BBC’s compliance with our trading and separation requirements to ensure its commercial activities do not distort the market or gain an unfair competitive advantage as a result of their relationship with the public service.

We also assess changes to the commercial activities to ensure fair and effective competition. In 2019/20 we undertook two such assessments.

ITV and the BBC announced in July 2019 their intention to launch a new subscription video on demand (SVoD) service in the UK, called BritBox, bringing together the ‘best of British’ programmes. The BBC’s involvement in the service included its commercial arm holding a 10% share and a significant content supply deal with BBC Studios.

Following consultation, we concluded that the BritBox arrangements were not a material change to the BBC’s commercial activities. However, we will monitor developments closely (particularly in relation to how the BBC makes programmes available on commercial services and any cross-promotion from the public service to BritBox) and we have the ability to step in if concerns arise. ITV and the BBC subsequently launched the new BritBox streaming service in November 2019.

In addition, BBC Studios and Discovery announced the dissolution of their UKTV joint venture in April 2019. Under the terms of this deal, Discovery took full control of the lifestyle channels and BBC Studios took full control of the entertainment channels, the UKTV brand and UKTV Play, a catch-up service. We concluded that our trading and separation rules would be sufficient to safeguard against any potential market distortion or unfair advantage arising as a result of this deal.

BBC Studios review

We delayed the start of our review of BBC Studios given its evolving commercial and market position so we could take account of the changes to BBC Studios from the BritBox and UKTV deals as well as the NAO’s review of BBC Studios. We now plan to publish the findings from this review in Q4 2020/21.

Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC

In October 2019, we published our second annual report on the BBC, covering the period April 2018 to March 2019.

This report set out how we carried out our functions as the BBC’s independent regulator and assessed the BBC’s compliance with its regulatory requirements.

We also published a detailed report which measured the BBC’s performance against its mission and public purposes across all its services and output and provides an overall perspective on how it is delivering for audiences.

Overall, we found that the BBC still plays a central role in audiences’ media and news consumption through the breadth and quality of its output across its many services. It provides a significant volume of news and current affairs, a wide range of learning and educational content, as well as high-quality distinctive and creative content for all audiences across its mainstream and specialist services.

However, we also found that concerns that we had raised on behalf of audiences last year remained. Although the BBC had taken some steps to address issues that we’d previously raised, we said that we now expected the BBC to set out a clearly articulated plan to address recurring themes.

We expect the BBC to focus specifically on:

Taking significant steps to engage younger people

Like all public service broadcasters, the BBC is vulnerable to the rapidly changing media landscape, particularly in its struggle to attract and retain younger audiences. Unless it can address this, its ability to deliver its mission and public purposes to the same level in future will be at risk.

Continuing to improve how it represents and portrays the whole of UK society

We acknowledged that the BBC leads the way in collecting diversity workforce data and has in place a number of initiatives to improve diversity.

However, our research showed that certain groups continue to be dissatisfied with how they are represented and portrayed by the BBC.

We said the BBC needs to set out in more detail its plan for improving representation and portrayal of the whole of UK society, including how it is responding to the specific findings of our review of last year.

Embedding transparency into its working practices

We found good examples of the BBC engaging with Ofcom in a more transparent way around some of its proposed service changes, for example BritBox, and we welcomed the improvements that it has made in its governance arrangements.

However, we continued to find examples of the BBC not taking sufficient account of the need for external engagement to assess fully the implications of its proposals on the broadcasting sector. Active engagement with the industry on proposed changes to BBC services will allow the BBC to deliver its duty to seek to avoid adverse impacts on competition which are not necessary for the effective fulfilment of the Mission and Public Purposes.

We also found that there is a lack of transparency in the way the BBC releases and explains its decisions on compliance with the Broadcasting Code.

We are working on new requirements on the  BBC to help build trust in its decision making in this area.

Broadcast licensing

The opportunity for potentially hundreds of smaller local radio stations to start digital broadcasting came much closer this year. Parliament passed a law which will give Ofcom the power to issue licences for small-scale DAB, and we consulted on how we intend to use these new powers. We will announce when we expect to start inviting applications in due course.

We’ve continued to license TV and radio services over the past year to broaden the range of services available for viewers and listeners – with applications for almost 200 new TV, digital radio and short-term radio services being received.

We’ve also licensed 12 new community radio services, while 17 new community radio services have launched – each of which will provide a locally-focused radio station for their community.

Following our invitation for existing community radio licensees to improve and extend their coverage area, we’ve approved over 100 requests for improvements and extensions to coverage areas. These decisions will allow these existing services to either improve the quality of reception within their coverage area and expand their reach, both of which have clear benefits for listeners.

We’ve also assessed and investigated just over 500 cases about radio and TV broadcasters failing to meet their licence obligations, which resulted in us publishing 249 breach findings. This work is important in ensuring that our licensees continue to meet specific requirements set out in their licence conditions – specifically, that radio broadcasters maintain the character of their licensed service, while TV broadcasters make their services accessible by providing subtitling, signing and audio description. This work is crucial to ensure that viewers and listeners continue to be able to access a wide range of high-quality TV and radio services.

Broadcast standards

We have continued to protect audiences by enforcing the Broadcasting Code. This year we recorded 82 breaches of the Code, and imposed seven sanctions on broadcasters, six of which were financial penalties.

These included a £75,000 fine for the national speech station Talk Radio for failing to preserve due impartiality. We also imposed a £200,000 fine on television channel RT for seven breaches of the due impartiality rules.

We imposed a £25,000 fine on television channel Ben TV for failing to provide viewers with adequate protection from potentially harmful content, because the channel invited viewers to order ‘free miracle spring water’ and claimed, or strongly implied, it could cure serious illnesses.

Ofcom imposed a fine on former licence holders Peace TV Urdu and Peace TV of £200,000 and £100,000 respectively for breaking our rules relating to crime, disorder, hatred and abuse. Our investigations found that programmes broadcast on the international satellite television channels, which broadcast religious programmes from an Islamic perspective, contained hate speech and highly offensive content, which in one instance was likely to incite crime.

After further breaches, Ofcom moved to suspend Peace TV Urdu’s licence in November 2019, and both licences were surrendered.

We have seen an increase in these types of cases which are very complex and often take longer to complete, as we report in the section on our KPI performance.

During the December 2019 General Election, Ofcom expedited and assessed 2,124 complaints about election programming. Our Election Committee, comprising members of the Ofcom Board and Content Board, assessed a complaint (PDF, 297.4 KB) from the Conservative Party about the Channel 4 News Climate Change Debate and its decision to use an ice sculpture in place of the Prime Minister, who chose not to take part. The Committee considered the programme did not raise issues warranting investigation.

In cases where there is significant public interest and to provide information to broadcasters, we occasionally publish our assessment decisions. One of these related to a discussion on BBC Breakfast between presenters Naga Munchetty and Dan Walker about comments made by US President Donald Trump on four US congresswomen. While we considered the discussion did not raise issues warranting investigation under our due impartiality rules, we highlighted our concern (PDF, 1.3 MB) about the overall lack of transparency in the BBC’s complaints process and the decisions it reaches. We welcome the positive steps the BBC is now taking to address the transparency of its published decisions on complaints.

We also consider complaints from people who believe they were unfairly treated in a programme or consider their privacy was unwarrantably infringed. In these cases, Ofcom acts as the adjudicator between the individual and the broadcaster.