New Ofcom powers: what are government plans to regulate streaming platforms in UK broadcasting shake-up?

The new Ofcom broadcasting rules will include measures to protect audiences from a wider range of harmful material

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Streaming services are set to be regulated by UK regulator Ofcom for the first time under new government plans.

Netflix, Disney+, ITV Hub, Amazon Prime Video and other services will be given new rules that will bring them in line with traditional broadcasters.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said the plans aim to “protect audiences” from “harmful material”

Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services will be given new rules (Photo: Adobe)Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services will be given new rules (Photo: Adobe)
Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming services will be given new rules (Photo: Adobe)

What powers will Ofcom have?

The government will give the UK media watchdog the power to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, aimed at setting standards for “larger TV-like services”, such as Netflix and Now TV, to level the rules with traditional broadcasters.

The maximum fine for a breach of the code will be £250,000 or an amount up to 5% of their revenue – whichever is higher.

Ofcom will also be given a “strengthened duty” to assess protection, such as age ratings and viewer guidance, with powers to force change under the new proposal.

The plans will include measures to protect audiences from a wider range of harmful material, with the government citing unchallenged health claims and pseudoscience documentaries.

The broadcasting reforms have been set out in a White Paper by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Ms Dorries said: “The UK’s TV and radio industries are world-renowned for their creativity, driven by exceptional talent that is delivering ground-breaking public service programming.

“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 and usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio.

“This will provide jobs and growth in the future along with the content we all love.”

A consultation will also be launched on new rules to ensure broadcasters such the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 make “distinctively British” programmes.

The government cited period-drama Downton Abbey, sci-fi series Doctor Who and rape drama I May Destroy You as examples that “reflect a vision of a modern UK”.

Sporting rights

The white paper also proposes the opportunity to secure rights to air TV’s major sporting events, such as the Fifa World Cup and Wimbledon, be made an exclusive public service broadcasters (PSB) benefit through reforms to the listed events regime.

Current broadcasting rules state that events of national interest should be available to view live for free by the widest possible audience, which is why broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 currently air most major sporting events.

However, digital rights are not covered by the current legislation, meaning PSBs can broadcast events live, but do not always have the catch-up rights.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport chairman Julian Knight added: “The rules ensuring major sporting events are free to be enjoyed by all have failed to keep pace with rapid changes in audience viewing habits.

“With many more people now watching online or on catch-up rather than crowding round a TV with friends and family, the government must ensure that the promised review of the listed events regime extends protection of the sporting crown jewels to digital and on-demand content.

“With the proposals announced today aimed at helping public service broadcasters thrive, it is puzzling why there is a deafening silence on the role of radio and how it will be supported. This will need to be rectified if, as promised, audiences are to enjoy a new golden age of programming.”

PSB prominence

The government will update prominence rules so that online TV platforms are legally required to offer PSB on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, and give them prominence so they are easy to find on the platform.

It will also set out a new remit for PSB quota, which currently requires broadcasters to air a minimum amount and variety of public service content.

The Culture Secretary said the plans will “revamp decades-old law” to help PSBs stay competitive.

In a statement, ITV said: “We welcome the government’s recognition of the huge value the PSBs deliver to the UK and its decision to introduce a Media Bill to deliver the necessary reforms to ensure PSBs can continue to thrive in future given market changes.

“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 privatisation

The white paper also signals the framework for the privatisation of Channel 4.

Under private ownership, Channel 4 will have access to capital and the freedom to make its own content, allowing it to diversify its revenue stream.

It will look to use some of the proceeds from the sale of Channel 4 to deliver a new creative dividend for the sector.

However, the proposals have proved unpopular with Channel 4, with Chief executive Alex Mahon saying there was no evidence that privatisation would benefit the channel.