Ofcom tightening up ‘ownership’ rules?

On October 24, UK media regulator Ofcom cancelled the licences of three channels (Babeworld, House of Fun and The Other Side). These channels are perhaps not the most important UK broadcasters, but now Ofcom is looking at the licensing of channels that do have a somewhat higher profile. Ofcom’s concerns revolve around who actually controls the channel’s content, and whether the ‘broadcaster’ is also the official licence holder.

Sources suggest that Ofcom is deepening its inquiries into licence-holders, even extending to some that have been broadcasting for many years. Ofcom is understood not to be alleging that these broadcasters are not complying with its rules, but there’s little doubt that some speciality broadcasters are anxious.

It is understood that channels such as Press TV (alleged to be backed by Iranian funds) and threatened with closure is one such channel. Ofcom also makes no secret of its sensitivity over the so-called ‘adult’ sector, many of which have complex licensing arrangements, and where some channels are known to be sub-leasing day-time hours to non-licensed operators, and in some cases have zero editorial control over these transmissions. This grey area is one that Ofcom is understood to want to tighten up.

Ofcom is understood to be seeking to reach a position where every ‘broadcaster’ has a matching licence. This aim, if correct, also potentially affects BSkyB’s position in the process because BSkyB does not permit anyone on air without a licence. “If you are sub-licensing capacity and have no licence yourself, you are technically in breach of Ofcom’s rules and might not qualify for a Sky EPG position,” says a well-placed source. “A number of anomalies have been created where an adult channel has changed the official name on its licence to match that of the EPG. From Sky’s point of view, that licence might be adequate. But when sub-licences are taken into account the picture gets very confused. Some ‘broadcasters’ now hold two or three licences in an attempt to be compliant, but Sky do not recognise this, preferring to stay with the EPG-based licence holding system.”

There are other loose ends. There are many broadcasters who hold Ofcom-issued licenses but do not broadcast signals to the UK market and consequently do not need an EPG. For example, Russia Today’s Arabic spin-off Rusiya Al-Yaum, is licensed by Ofcom even though its Moscow-based signals are targeted to the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe. The original licence for Rusiya Al-Yaum was issued to Sun 4 Sale Ltd, which went into liquidation, and where the licence was transferred to a non-broadcaster which allocated it to Rusiya Al-Yaum for a fee. The Ofcom-issued licence gives comfort to the rest of Europe to permit the channel to be retransmitted locally, but again Ofcom is understood to be concerned that the licence holder has no editorial control over the actual broadcaster.

Other channels, including many UK-based children’s channels that beam content into the Scandinavian markets, are also licensed by Ofcom, even though their signals are not available in the UK. The reverse is also true, whereby some incoming channels, usually not transmitting from the UK, are also licensed by Ofcom.

Some UK broadcasting ‘wholesalers’, who specialise in providing international broadcasters with a one-stop shop for all their regulatory needs are also believed to be concerned at the confusion. The problems cover radio as well as TV licensing, and how capacity is shared and ultimately licensed.

Ofcom says its rules have not changed, adding: “We continue to enforce these rigorously when information comes to light that either the ownership rules are being contravened or someone other than the provider of the service is holding the licence.”

Besides the three broadcasters who had their licences revoked last week, Ofcom has made similar determinations in the case of DBN, the Kashmiri Broadcasting Assoc, when Ofcom established the licence holder was not the actual broadcaster. Another recent case concerned adult channel ‘Live 960’ where the licence was held by Hoppr Entertainment Ltd, and had failed to supply Ofcom with a list of its directors and ownership structure.

 

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