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Ofcom issues new BBC operating licence

March 23, 2023

By Colin Mann

The changing needs of viewers and listeners and a demand for greater public accountability are enshrined in a new, modernised BBC operating licence announced by broadcast regulator Ofcom.

The licence, which comes into effect on April 1st, 2023, has been designed firmly to hold the BBC to account on delivering its remit, while enabling it to adapt and innovate in how it delivers content to viewers and listeners, whose habits are dramatically shifting.

For the first time, the licence sets comprehensive new requirements on the BBC’s online services – BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds and the BBC website – which are increasingly important for reaching audiences. At the same time, Ofcom says it is safeguarding important content on the BBC’s broadcast TV and radio services, using quotas to ensure the BBC delivers a minimum volume of content such as news and current affairs, and original UK programmes.

The updated licence also demands a step-change from the corporation by imposing transparency as a core obligation. This follows concerns about the lack of detail and clarity provided by the BBC around planned changes to its programmes and services. The BBC will have to explain in more detail how it is delivering for audiences. Also, for the first time, it will have to publicly set out its plans before making significant changes to its services.

With households across the country paying a combined £3.8 billion (€4.3bn) in licence fees in 2022, it is critical that the BBC serves all audiences and continues to provide a broad range of high-quality UK content, says Ofcom.

According to Ofcom, the new operating licence gives the BBC sufficient flexibility to shape its output in response to changing audience behaviours, but with stringent reporting conditions and other safeguards. It strikes a balance between audiences’ expectations for high-quality online content and services, while recognising that broadcast TV and radio remain very important for many viewers and listeners. In summary, our new operating licence for the BBC imposes:

New requirements for what the BBC must deliver, including online

The licence now fully captures BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds and the BBC website. It requires the BBC to make important content available for online audiences, including for the nations and regions and at-risk programming, and make it easy to discover. Ofcom also requires the BBC to provide a wide range of content across all of its services – including music, arts, religion, ethics, other specialist factual content, comedy and children’s programmes. As part of this, it must clearly set out the number of hours it will provide on its network TV and radio services in each of these genres in its Annual Plan.

More than 70 quotas across the BBC’s broadcast TV and radio services

The licence retains strict regulatory safeguards: to maintain high-quality news and current affairs; to preserve the distinctiveness of the BBC’s radio services (through quotas on music and sports); and to protect original UK programmes. Quotas also ensure that the BBC commissions a minimum amount of content outside London and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Extensive new reporting requirements, forcing greater transparency

The licence demands more open, detailed and proactive communication from the BBC about its performance, its plans for its content and services – including any significant changes – and the effectiveness of those changes. It must do so by setting out detailed information, specified by Ofcom, with its Annual Plan and Annual Report. If the BBC plans significant changes during the course of the year, outside the Annual Plan process, it must report on these as soon as reasonably practicable.

The operating licence requirements will be underpinned by comprehensive oversight of the BBC by Ofcom throughout the course of the year. Ofcom says it will undertake extensive research looking at what content and services are available, what is being viewed and listened to, and audience satisfaction. Broadcasters and other industry organisations will continue to play an important role in highlighting any concerns about the BBC’s plans to Ofcom.

“If we are concerned that the BBC is not delivering for audiences, we will not hesitate to act. That includes moving swiftly to impose additional requirements in the operating licence if necessary,” says Ofcom.

“We recognise that the BBC needs to adapt quickly to keep up with changes in what viewers and listeners want, and how they get their content,” commented Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Broadcasting and Online Content. “So we’re future-proofing our regulation to enable the BBC to transform and innovate, while safeguarding content that matters most to audiences.”

“We’ve been particularly disappointed by the BBC’s lack of detail and clarity around planned changes to its services, which has led to a lot of uncertainty for audiences and industry. Our strict new reporting rules will ensure the BBC is held to a higher level of public accountability, requiring it to clearly explain its plans before going ahead, as well as evaluating whether they work.

Delivery of local content and news

As part of its digital-first strategy, the BBC has made several changes to BBC News and local radio. A recent letter to the BBC sets out Ofcom’s concerns and details the assurances it has secured from the BBC in response. Following this engagement with the BBC, Ofcom will also:

  • retain a condition in the operating licence for BBC News to provide high quality local, regional, national, UK and international news to UK audiences;
  • hold the BBC to its commitments on local radio in England relating to news and travel, breaking news and major incidents, and its contribution to local democracy;
  • retain the quota in the operating licence for 100 per cent of content to be speech during the breakfast peak on local radio in England; and
  • rigorously monitor the impact of the all changes to BBC News, local radio in England (including levels of programme-sharing) and local radio in the Nations, and step in to impose additional licence conditions if audience needs are not being met.

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