Netflix and Disney+ among streamers facing tighter regulation in UK

Actors Simone Ashley, Jonathan Bailey and Charita Chandran in BridgertonImage source, Netflix
Image caption,
Netflix hits such as Bridgerton would be subject to Ofcom regulations, bringing them into line with public service broadcasters

Streaming services are set to be regulated by Ofcom for the first time, under government proposals that also reiterate plans to privatise Channel 4.

Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers will be given new rules bringing them in line with traditional broadcasters.

The culture secretary said the proposal for Ofcom regulation would protect audiences from harmful material.

The reforms are set out in a government White Paper - a policy document.

Issued by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), it says the proposals are intended to create a "new golden age" of British TV and "help the nation's public service broadcasters thrive".

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said called the UK TV and radio industry "the envy of the world", adding they are "driven by exceptional talent that is delivering groundbreaking public service programming".

"Today, we are giving British broadcasters the backing and support they need to rule the airwaves for years to come...

"Set against the backdrop of the digital transformation of our viewing habits, today's plans will revamp decades-old laws to help our public service broadcasters compete in the internet age."

BBC Newscast asked her about privatising Channel 4, and she said one of the reasons was that "the money we will get from the capital from the sale will be invested back into that sector, into training and skills".

She talked about "at least 18 or 19 independent film studios opening in the UK next year" adding that there are people "all across the UK" who would love to work in the creative industries, and the importance of "putting money back into training, into those areas that need levelling up."

Streaming regulations

While linear TV channels must currently abide by Ofcom rules, most Video on Demand (VoD) services are not currently subject to the regulator's Broadcasting Code.

The changes put forward would oblige VoDs to protect audiences from harmful or offensive material, and adhere to rules regarding accuracy, fairness and privacy.

The move will be welcomed by public service broadcasters (PSBs), who have been lobbying for streaming services to face the same regulations as them for several years.

Image source, Mike Blake
Image caption,
Streaming services such as Netflix could now face similar regulation to public service broadcasters

The government said the new rules will primarily affect "TV-like" VoD services such as Netflix, ITV Hub and Now, and would "level the playing field".

Currently, the BBC iPlayer is the only VoD service which has to abide by Ofcom's Broadcasting Code.

But the proposals mean Ofcom would have the powers to draft and enforce a new VoD Code, to ensure that all streamers are subject to stricter rules.

The government said the maximum fine for regulated VoD services which break the rules will be £250,000, or an amount up to 5% of an organisation's revenue, whichever is higher.

Channel 4 privatisation

Image source, Channel 4
Image caption,
It's A Sin, set during the 1980s Aids crisis, is one of Channel 4's biggest hits of recent years

The government's intention to privatise Channel 4, which is currently publicly owned but commercially funded, is also set out in the White Paper.

It says a "change of ownership in Channel 4 will give it the tools it needs to succeed in the future as a public service broadcaster while protecting its distinctiveness".

But the proposals have been unpopular with Channel 4, which said earlier this month it was disappointed with the plans.

Chief executive Alex Mahon said there was no evidence that privatisation would benefit the channel.

Labour is also against the move, with shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell telling the Commons: "Nothing screams rudderless government like fixating on the governance of Channel 4 while people's energy bills are going through the roof. Why sell off Channel 4, and why now?"

Ms Powell added the privatisation of Channel 4 "will mean fewer British-made programmes for British audiences and fewer British jobs".

However, Ms Dorries said Channel 4 faces "serious challenges" which are restricting its growth - and anyone "choosing to dismiss them" is "burying their head in the sand".

In her written statement to the Commons, the culture secretary said that while Channel 4 has "more than fulfilled the original aim for setting it up", due to the changing broadcasting environment, like "every other broadcaster, it now faces huge competition for audience share - and many of its competitors have incredibly deep pockets".

PSB prominence

Image source, PA Media
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Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said the White Paper would "usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio"

The government also plans to bring in legislation to ensure public service broadcasters' content is given prominence on connected devices and major online platforms, including smart TVs and set-top boxes. That includes services like BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My 5.

The first five linear channels the public find when switching on their televisions are PSBs, the White Paper notes, because these slots are reserved in electronic programme guides on TV sets, including on platforms such as Sky and Virgin Media.

However, the government acknowledged PSBs have been finding it increasingly difficult to secure their presence and maintain their prominence on newer and global platforms, something the new rules would address.

Sporting rights

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The BBC was limited to only two live streams at the Tokyo Olympics because of rights restrictions

Plans to change the digital broadcast rights for major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, men's World Cup finals, men's FA Cup final, Grand National and Wimbledon singles finals, are also set out.

Current broadcasting rules state that events of national interest should be available to view live, and for free, by the widest possible audience. As a result, broadcasters such as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 currently air most major sporting events.

However, digital rights are not covered by the current legislation, known as the listed events regime. That means PSBs can broadcast events live, but do not always have the catch-up rights.

The Paper says that if, for example, the Olympic men's 100m final took place overnight and a different broadcaster owned the catch-up rights, a wide audience may miss out on watching it for free.

The proposals will strengthen the position of PSBs at a time when many are struggling to keep some of their biggest sporting events.

Last year, viewers complained that BBC coverage of the Tokyo Olympics was less than in previous years, after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) struck a deal with US broadcast giant Discovery.

How has the industry reacted?

An Ofcom spokesman told BBC News: "We're pleased to see the government taking forward many of our recommendations, particularly around securing prominence for on-demand public service content. We will continue to offer support with the development of future legislation."

In a statement, ITV said: "We will engage carefully with the substance of the White Paper once it is published, but many of its proposals - notably reform to prominence and inclusion rules, a more flexible approach to remits, and changes to the listed events regime - look very sensible."

Channel 4 said it "will study the White Paper issued by DCMS, and a considered response will follow".

It added: "However, Channel 4 remains committed to upholding and maximising its remit and public service purpose that has enabled it to shape Britain's creative culture and make a significant contribution to the creative industries."

Netflix said: "As we've previously said, we are supportive of measures to update the legal framework and bring our service in the UK under Ofcom's jurisdiction. We look forward to reviewing the White Paper's other proposals and continuing to engage with the government on their plans."

A BBC spokesman said: "We welcome the steps to secure the ongoing success of public service broadcasters, including the increased and improved prominence of our services on TVs and platforms.

"We also look forward to engaging with the government on both the forthcoming mid-term review and then the national debate on the next Charter.

"The White Paper recognises the BBC's critical role in supporting the UK creative sector and we remain focused on delivering great value for all licence fee payers and representing the UK to audiences around the world."