Netflix and other big streaming beasts are to fall under strict UK regulation for the first time as the government says it will revamp the “decades-old” laws that govern Public Service Broadcasting (PSB).
Streamers operating in the UK could be fined up to 5% of their revenues if they are found guilty of showcasing harmful content, according to a landmark White Paper from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which signalled a range of updates to the laws governing broadcasting and production that will be presented to the UK’s Parliament next month and are likely come into force in 2024.
UK regulator Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code only really governs the major broadcasters, while there is a light-touch regulatory approach to Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video — and Netflix and AppleTV+ don’t fall within it at all.
That is set to change with a new Video-on-Demand Code that will give UK viewers the power to complain to Ofcom if they see something that they believe is harmful in a streamer show.
The new code will ensure “VoD services, which target and profit from UK audiences,” are “subject to stricter rules protecting UK audiences from harmful material,” added the DCMS.
The move is part of the plan to revamp “decades-old laws to help our Public Service Broadcasters complete in the internet age and usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio,” according to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries. Her critics may suggest the decision to freeze the BBC licence fee for two years and sign off on the decision to sell Channel 4 could in fact do the opposite.
Also within the White Paper, strict quotas and rules that govern the commissioning decisions made by the PSBs are to be relaxed.
The DCMS said the new remit for PSBs will “recognise public service content takes many forms,” which could include culturally-relevant content reflecting all parts and people of the UK, economically-important content produced by independent producers and across the UK and democratically-impactful content such as trusted, impartial news and current affairs.
Controversial plans to force the PSBs to abide by “distinctive British content quotas” appear to have been parred back amidst confusion over the definition.
While the quotas were initially supposed to be unveiled in this White Paper, these plans will now form part of a consultation that will “consider a range of options including incorporating requirements directly into the existing quota system.”
The plans had attracted the ire of British creative heavyweights such as Lucy Prebble and Jack Thorne. The government highlighted the likes of Doctor Who, I May Destroy You, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, Luther, Downton Abbey and Planet Earth as “huge international hits that reflect a vision of modern UK” and claimed this could be diluted without some sort of intervention.
“The globalization of broadcasting means more of the content people watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the UK, with an international cast, communicating in U.S. English,” it added.
“This risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for UK audiences, as well as reducing UK soft power abroad.”
Rather than having to air content commissioned via quotas on their main channels, broadcasters will be able to host these shows on their VoD players such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All4, “reaching audiences by delivering content on a wider range of services,” said the DCMS.
Having started a campaign on the issue several years ago, the broadcasters have also finally been granted their wish on updated prominence legislation, which has also been included in the White Paper.
Global tech giants will be required to “carry” the PSB’s VoD players on their platforms, such as smart TVs and set-top boxes.
If they fail to do so, Ofcom will have enforcement power to impose fines, gather information and intervene in disputes.