UK proposes ‘Video-on-demand Code’

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The UK government has published proposals which it says will enable public service broadcasters (PSBs) to compete better with foreign streamers.

The Media Bill is intended to modernise “outdated” 2003 legislation by bringing services such as Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ under a new “Video-on-demand Code, similar to the Broadcasting Code.”

The VOD code will would allow UK regulator Ofcom to investigate and enforce standards, and protect audiences from harmful material – standards to which PSBs already have to abide.

Once passed, the bill could see streamers fined up to £250,000 ($308,000) if they break rules—or, in the most serious and repeated cases—restricted in the UK entirely.

VOD viewers will be able to formally complain to Ofcom, and the bill will strengthen Ofcom’s duty to assess audience protection measures on VODs such as age ratings and viewer guidance.

The Media Bill will also cement the prominence of PSBs by ensuring that their on-demand services such as iPlayer, ITVX, All 4, My5, S4C Clic, and STV Player are easily discoverable on all smart TVs and streaming devices sold in the UK.

Forcing global TV platforms to “prominently” carry UK PSB services will “help ensure distinctly British programming remains easy to find as viewing increasingly shifts online, and UK audiences can readily find the content they value when they turn on their TV.”

“These new laws will level the playing field with global streaming giants, ensuring they meet the same high standards we expect from public service broadcasters and that services like iPlayer and ITVX are easy to find however you watch TV,” said government culture minister Lucy Frazer.

Broadly the move has been welcomed, if considered long overdue.

“The sluggishness of policy makers in adapting to changes in the media landscape has hindered the progress of British businesses,” said Kieren Mills, Head of Broadcast, Total Media. “ITV held a dominant position in the UK broadcast market, but was constrained by Contract Rights Renewal whereas Google enjoyed unregulated freedom with a 90 per cent share of the search market Although the horse has already bolted to a certain extent, it is reassuring to witness the [UK Government] slowly catching up,” he continued. “Protectionism should not be promoted, but British media companies should have the opportunity to operate on a fair and equitable playing field, particularly in an industry with such significant cultural importance.”

He added, “British media cannot compete with the global streamers at what they do best—high-budget, special effects-laden, and territorially homogeneous content. Localising their content is what will enable British TV and radio companies to distinguish themselves from their counterparts, thereby retaining their audiences.”

Oscar Wall, General Manager EMEA at subscriber management company Recurly said, “The bill will certainly establish a level playing field between broadcasters and VOD services. While giving Ofcom the powers to regulate and manage consistently across the media environment, it will create healthy competition that will drive higher standards for all. In addition, the increased investment in technology is likely to attract a larger audience, establish personalised connections with viewers, and drive revenue through advertising, subscriptions, and multi-platform media partnerships.”

In a statement, Carolyn McCall, ITV’s CEO, welcomed the bill “as a decisive staging post on the journey to a modern and flexible regulatory regime for TV and media in the UK. This bill will modernise the framework for a Public Service Broadcasting system that is the cornerstone of the £116bn creative economy. Given the profound and dynamic changes in the global media ecology the need is urgent, and we would encourage the Government to ensure the bill becomes law as soon as possible.”

Tim Davie, BBC director-general, responded, “We welcome the prominence reforms which guarantee all audiences choice and make great British programmes easier to find. While we will look at the details closely, the Media Bill is urgently needed and should be passed into law swiftly.”

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