The UK’s public service broadcasters – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – are calling for new rules to ensure their programming receives top billing in the era of on-demand TV viewing.
The chief executives of the UK’s biggest public service broadcasters, including STV in Scotland and S4C in Wales, have co-signed a letter, issued to The Guardian, calling on the government and Ofcom to guarantee their content and players prominence, so they are not buried by competitors such as Sky, Amazon or Netflix.
The PSBs have enjoyed the benefits of being guaranteed the top slots on traditional TV guides, thanks to legislation introduced in 2003. However, the shift in viewing habits – from the arrival of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to the introduction of algorithms to select shows viewers might like – has meant many TV fans bypass the traditional electronic programme guide.
The broadcasters fear that commercial players are trumpeting their own content, while PSB content and services such as the iPlayer, ITV Hub and All4 are not given any prominence.
“There is a global commercial battle going on to shape and influence what we watch, listen to or buy in our homes,” the letter says. “Global players have a growing influence on what UK audiences discover when they turn on their screens. Increasingly they are becoming the gatekeepers to what we watch but they have little interest in reflecting UK culture, investing in the nations and regions, or ensuring the news they provide is accurate and impartial.”
This year the number of people signed up to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon overtook the number of those signed up to pay-TV companies such as Sky and BT, which themselves have swelled in popularity to be available in almost 17 million households.
However, the chiefs of ITV, BBC, Channel 4 and Channel 5 argue that their programming is still by far the most popular in the UK, with shows such as Bodyguard, Love Island, Bake Off and Dr Who attracting huge audiences, and public service broadcasting content is “vital” to British culture and democracy.
“This is why it is so important that public service content remains easy for audiences to find,” the letter says. “Regardless of where you’re watching, which device you’re watching on, or who provides your television service, you should always be able to easily find PSB services and programmes in the UK.”
Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, has just closed a consultation into the issue of due prominence. It is sympathetic to the PSBs’ case but it would require new legislation to broaden the current laws across all services.
“To ensure public service channels are easy to find on TV delivered through the internet, parliament would need to introduce new legislation,” an Ofcom spokesman told The Guardian. “We would support that, and we recently set out some ideas and sought views on how it might be achieved.”
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the government was “committed to working with PSBs and the sector to ensure our world-class TV industry continues to thrive”.
Sky argues that it already gives prominence to PSB on-demand content. The issue with raising the billing of public service broadcasters’ streaming players is that they are stacked with content outside the current PSB regulations. For example, ITV2’s Love Island and The Only Way is Essex would benefit from huge promotion but regulations only cover shows on ITV1.
“Sky is the best partner PSBs never knew they had, helping to deliver significant reach, revenue and attribution,” said a spokesman for Sky. “But we can’t continue to be a good partner, and innovate as a platform, unless we have access to PSB content in all the ways viewers want. An ‘app or nothing’ approach is not in line with the spirit of industry collaboration that we all need to focus on.”