Levelling the playing field for TV and streaming: the UK’s draft Media Bill explained

UK Government publishes long-awaited Media Bill to bring Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video under same regulation as linear TV.

The draft Media Bill hopes to reform decades-old laws to boost the growth of the UK’s public service broadcasters (PSBs), by creating more equal footing for TV, streaming and radio in the age of smart TVs and speakers. 

The new laws will introduce simpler, more flexible rules on what TV programmes PSBs are required to show, meaning these broadcasters – who commission around £1.2bn in programming each year, with almost all of it spent in the UK – will be better equipped to adapt to changing viewer habits as people increasingly watch TV on digital devices instead of traditional ‘linear’ TV, said the release.

The Bill also seeks to protect UK radio against smart speaker operators such as Google and Amazon. These platforms will be banned from charging stations for being hosted on their services and for overlaying adverts on them.

The legislation answers long-term demands from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to level the playing field and to adapt to the changing viewing habits. Once passed, streaming giants such as Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video could be fined up to £250,000 or restricted in the UK entirely.

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said: “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, All4 and ITVX are easy to find however you watch TV.”

UK and US streaming services have given major competition to PSBs, with Ofcom’s latest research indicating that traditional ‘linear’ TV viewing is down more than 25% since 2011, and down 68% among 16-24-year-olds. The Bill will mean audiences can more easily access British originated content, boosting opportunities for UK content and stories, diversifying the media output.

“The sluggishness of policy makers has hindered progress”

Some commentators have argued that whilst the long-awaited bill comes as a relief, it might be a little too late. 

ITV’s Chief Executive, Dame Carolyn McCall, said: “This Bill will modernise the framework for a Public Service Broadcasting system that is the cornerstone of the £116bn creative economy.

“The UK is a global leader in the creative industries and this legislation will help to maintain and strengthen that position. 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.”

Kieren Mills, Head of Broadcast, Total Media, commented: “In recent years, the sluggishness of policy makers in adapting to changes in the media landscape has hindered the progress of British businesses. 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% share of the search market.

“Although the horse has already bolted to a certain extent, it is reassuring to witness the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport slowly catching up.”

“This is an important moment for British TV”

“Additional investment in technology will deliver exciting innovations that will attract growing audiences and deliver more personalised, lasting connections with viewers,” said Oscar Wall, General Manager EMEA at Recurly. “In turn, this will be a revenue driver through advertising, subscriptions and potential multi-platform media partnerships.”

Andrew Monks, Implementation Partner, EssenceMediacom added “This is an important moment for British TV, and a positive sign that the government is taking the protection of our creative sector seriously.”

“For many years, EssenceMediacom’s clients have successfully grown their businesses through advertising with the UK Broadcasters, not just because of the high quality of the programmes they produce, but also because when a member of the viewing public sees an advert in one of those programmes, they implicitly trust that what they see is controlled and tightly regulated.

“More recent entrants to the UK TV landscape such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, benefit enormously from that implicit trust – many people will assume that because a new channel is on their TV screen it must be subject to the same controls – but these broadcasters do so without having to invest the significant resources needed to uphold the UK’s stringent regulatory standards,” Monks continued. 

“All markets benefit from healthy competition – and what’s clear is that the UK’s appetite for TV content is bigger now than ever before. However, where broadcasters compete with each other for viewers, it is essential they do so on a level playing-field. Standards and regulations must be a key cornerstone of this.” 

He concluded: “The expansion of this regulatory framework will fuel innovation and encourage continued diversity in content creation and production in the UK, resulting in more engaging content for viewers. This, in turn, is good news for advertisers who can tap into engaged and entertained audiences, wherever they watch TV.”