New laws may be required to support local TV

Ofcom has set out a range of ways in which the current system of Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) might be changed to help deliver local TV services.

A report has been prepared for the Culture and Media Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who asked Ofcom to produce the report in his speech at the RTS International Conference in September.

The report sets out options relating to the commercial PSB providers – ITV1, Channel 4/S4C and Five – and possible ways that new providers of local services might be assisted now and in the future.

Ofcom’s report raises a number of issues for the Government to consider before deciding how it will deliver local TV.

Delivering local TV: Short term

In the short term, achieving significant changes to the existing content requirements on PSB providers can be achieved but may have relatively limited impact, the report says.

But there is a significant opportunity under current legislation to create a new licensing regime for local TV on digital terrestrial TV (DTT). In the future this could help create a clearer regulatory distinction between national and local providers of content.

New revenue opportunities could potentially be created if a new local TV channel was carried on DTT. If those services could not be received outside the UK, it would be possible to set different rules regarding the amount and scheduling of spot advertising on local TV.

Delivering local TV in the longer term

Opportunity for significant change to the existing PSB sector will come from new legislation and the commercial PSB re-licensing process, whereby the Channel 3 and Five services seek new licenses.

Electronic Programme Guides

Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs) are the on-screen menus by which viewers choose channels and access information about programmes. The Government has said it is considering new legislation that would guarantee the prominence of local services on EPGs.

The report makes it clear that guaranteeing first page EPG prominence for new local services through regulation may be difficult under current legislation. However, legislation could clarify and tighten regulation to ensure that this outcome could be secured.

The report sets out some of the key questions for the Government to consider if it wants to use primary legislation to tighten the regulation of EPG prominence.

Must Carry

The Government could decide to add any new local TV service to a list called ‘must carry’. This means that the channel must be available through all platforms which have a significant audience size and that the owner of the platform is under a legal obligation to ensure the channel is shown.

However, TV platforms are constantly developing; the number of people watching content online is growing, and is likely to grow further with the launch of YouView.

In particular, the report notes that in the future it is possible that network providers may charge content providers for carriage. If that were to happen, the report suggests that the Government might need to take steps to ensure continued widespread access to important public service content online at an acceptable quality of service. This will require further consideration in the context of the ‘net neutrality’ debate.

Trade-offs with existing obligations

Current PSBs already have certain production and content obligations placed upon them.

If the Government wants to add extra material obligations on existing providers, it may be necessary to reduce current obligations and quotas – such as ‘out of London production’ – to balance the future incentives and obligations associated with PSB status.

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