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Should advertising rules apply equally to all UK TV channels?

Published: 19 April 2023
Last updated: 19 April 2023

Ofcom is today seeking views on whether to remove some or all of the stricter advertising rules that apply to commercially-funded public service broadcasters.

All UK broadcasters are subject to restrictions on the quantity and scheduling of advertising on their channels. But under rules introduced over 30 years ago, the public service broadcasting (PSB) channels – ITV, STV, Channel 4, S4C and Channel 5 – are subject to tighter advertising restrictions than non-PSB commercial channels, such as ITV2, 5USA and Pick.

Following a call for evidence (PDF, 279.3 KB) last year – and having considered the potential impact on audiences and the wider market – we have provisionally concluded that stricter advertising restrictions on PSB channels are no longer justified or proportionate.

So today, we are consulting on two options:

  1. To bring PSB advertising rules fully into line with those for non-PSB channels.
  2. To bring PSB advertising rules into line with those for non-PSB channels, while retaining safeguards that limit the number of internal breaks allowed in programmes. This is our preferred option.

Under both options, all PSB and non-PSB channels would be subject to the same limit of showing no more than an average of 12 minutes of television advertising and teleshopping spots per hour – of which no more than nine minutes may be television advertising. In each case, existing restrictions on the frequency of advertising in films, news and children’s programmes would be kept in place.

Under the second option, the PSB channels would remain subject to stricter rules on the number of internal breaks permitted in programmes. This would mean, for example, that a half-hour programme on a PSB channel would still only be allowed one advertising break, while a half-hour programme on a non-PSB channel would continue to be allowed two breaks.

Subject to responses to our consultation, we may also consider maintaining the status quo.

Why are we considering these changes?

There have been significant changes in how television is distributed and watched since these rules were first introduced three decades ago. There is already a vast choice of alternatives to linear broadcast television, including subscription video on-demand services and free advertising-supported television channels which are increasingly drawing audiences’ attention.

It is our current view that providing PSB channels with the same freedom in advertising minutage and scheduling as other commercial channels would not significantly affect the range of services available to viewers, or materially affect audiences’ perceptions of their quality. We also consider that our other regulatory tools – such as setting licence obligations – are an effective means of maintaining the high levels of quality that audiences expect from PSB services.

Allowing the PSB channels slightly greater flexibility in the scheduling of advertising may also strengthen their commercial position as they continue to manage their transition to digital-led organisations, and afford them greater opportunity to monetise their content.

What do viewers think?

Most people we spoke to through our deliberative research (PDF, 2.2 MB) and in our omnibus survey (PDF, 640.0 KB) had limited awareness of the current differences in the amount, and the frequency of advertising shown on PSB channels versus other commercial channels.

Similarly, viewers had not necessarily noticed an increase in advertising minutes on PSB channels following the period of National Mourning (PDF, 208.6 KB), when they were allowed the same advertising limits as non-PSB channels so they could recoup lost minutage.

Audiences said they were more likely to tolerate additional advertising if they could be assured that the additional revenue generated would be invested in content. Similarly, viewers were more accepting of the potential changes when they recognised that it might not be as disruptive to their viewing experience as they had initially feared.

However, our findings indicate that an increase in the frequency of advertising breaks on the PSB channels may be more of a concern. This is why our preferred option for consultation is to retain limits on the frequency of in-programme ad breaks.

We welcome views and evidence from interested or affected parties on our proposals, which must be submitted by 31 May 2023.

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