Streaming services are set to be regulated by Ofcom under new government proposals
Plans have been set out to overhaul broadcasting in the UK, with ministers intending to privatise the government-owned Channel 4 and give Ofcom powers to regulate streaming platforms such as Netflix.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has revealed the new plans, saying there was a need to “protect audiences” from “harmful material” that may be broadcast on streaming platforms.
And Cabinet minister Ben Wallace told ITV News there was "no harm" in selling off Channel 4, despite fervent opposition to its sale, saying "I don't know why the government is running a TV channel".
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Some of the proceeds from the sale of Channel 4 would be used to deliver a new creative dividend for the sector, the government proposal said.
Ms Dorries described Channel 4 as the "last piece of the puzzle" as she wrote about the broadcasting White Paper.
The government plans will give the UK media watchdog the power to draft and enforce a new video-on-demand code, aimed at setting standards for “larger TV-like services” such as Netflix, ITV Hub and Now TV to level the rules with traditional broadcasters.
The maximum fine for a breach of the code will be £250,000 or an amount up to five per cent of their revenue – whichever is higher.
Ofcom will also be given a “strengthened duty” to assess protection such as age ratings and viewer guidance, with powers to force change under the new proposal.
What is Ofcom?
Regulated by parliament, Ofcom is a government watchdog that is usually associated with overseeing the content we see on our TV.
Now poised to gain extra regulatory powers over streaming services, they also look into Royal Mail deliveries, scams and the airwaves used by phones and radios.
All UK commercial television and radio services are licensed by the regulatory body - and, as such, are subject to its terms or risk having there right to broadcast material revoked.
The regulator ensures people are protected from harmful or offensive material, from being treated unfairly and from having their privacy invaded.
They also handle complaints members of the public may have about content they see on television, investigations can be launched and sanctions brought to broadcasters if they're found in breach of the watchdog's guidelines.
Which streaming services will be overseen by Ofcom?
The new government proposals represent the first time that Ofcom has been able to regulate streaming services.
Online platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video and other streamers will have new rules set out for them - that will hold them to the same guidelines followed by traditional broadcasters.
Streaming services run by traditional broadcasters such as the ITV Hub, BBC iPlayer and Sky's Now TV will also fall under the new regulations. The government said the plans will include measures to protect audiences from a wider range of harmful material, citing unchallenged health claims and pseudoscience documentaries.
Does this change the privatisation of Channel 4?
The white paper, released on Thursday, signals the framework for the privatisation of Channel 4.
The privatisation will remove restrictions which “effectively prohibit” the broadcaster from producing and selling its own content, according to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Under private ownership, Channel 4 will have access to capital and the freedom to make its own content, allowing it to diversify its revenue stream, it said.
It added that under public ownership, the broadcaster has limited ability to borrow or raise capital by issuing shares and its set-up “effectively stops it from making its own content”.
The proceeds from the sale of Channel 4 have been earmarked to help deliver a new creative dividend for the sector.
A consultation will also be launched on new rules to ensure broadcasters such BBC, ITV and Channel 4 make “distinctively British” programmes.
The government cited period-drama Downton Abbey, sci-fi series Doctor Who and searing rape drama I May Destroy You as examples that “reflect a vision of a modern UK”.
Since the announcement, the government has faced heavy criticism.
Dorothy Byrne, president of Murray Edwards College and Channel 4's former head of news and current affairs, says she's 'angry' at the privatisation
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said there's "no case" for selling Channel 4 and the government was making the wrong decision.
He said nobody he speaks to on the campaign trail for the upcoming local election is speaking to him about Channel 4, "they are all talking to me about the fact they can't pay their bills".
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said: “Selling off Channel 4 in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis will leave voters scratching their heads about how this will help pay their bills.
“It will likely mean fewer British-made programmes for British audiences, and less support for British jobs across the country."
However, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said told ITV News there is "no harm" in privatising the broadcaster as he questioned the quality of its programming.
"You only have to look at the running order of Channel 4 to know that, yes it does some great creative stuff, it also does some stuff that could be perfectly done by any commercial thing; Place in the Sun, constant repeats," he said.
"I don't particularly look at much of the programming of C4 and think it's cutting edge creativity."
The broadcaster is currently owned by the government but receives its funding from advertising.
What else did the white paper set out?
The white paper also proposes the opportunity to secure rights to air TV’s major sporting events, such as the Fifa World Cup and Wimbledon, be made an exclusive public service broadcasters (PSB) benefit through reforms to the listed events regime.
Similarly, the government will update prominence rules so online TV platforms are legally required to offer PSB on-demand services, such as BBC iPlayer and ITV Hub, and give them prominence so they are easy to find on the platform.
It will also set out a new remit for PSB quota, which currently requires broadcasters to air a minimum amount and variety of public service content.
The culture secretary said the plans will “revamp decades-old law” to help PSBs stay competitive.
“The UK’s TV and radio industries are world-renowned for their creativity, driven by exceptional talent that is delivering ground-breaking public service programming.
“Set against the backdrop of the digital transformation of our viewing habits, today’s plans will revamp decades-old laws to help our public service broadcasters compete in the internet age and usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio.
“This will provide jobs and growth in the future along with the content we all love,” Ms Dorries said.
In a statement, ITV said: “We welcome the government’s recognition of the huge value the PSBs deliver to the UK and its decision to introduce a Media Bill to deliver the necessary reforms to ensure PSBs can continue to thrive in future given market changes.
“We will engage carefully with the substance of the White Paper once it is published, but many of its proposals – notably reform to prominence and inclusion rules, a more flexible approach to remits, and changes to the listed events regime – look very sensible.”
In a statement, Netflix said: “As we’ve previously said, we are supportive of measures to update the legal framework and bring our service in the UK under Ofcom’s jurisdiction.
“We look forward to reviewing the White Paper’s other proposals and continuing to engage with the government on their plans.”
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport chairman Julian Knight said: “The rules ensuring major sporting events are free to be enjoyed by all have failed to keep pace with rapid changes in audience viewing habits.
“With many more people now watching online or on catch-up rather than crowding round a TV with friends and family, the government must ensure that the promised review of the listed events regime extends protection of the sporting crown jewels to digital and on-demand content.
“With the proposals announced today aimed at helping public service broadcasters thrive, it is puzzling why there is a deafening silence on the role of radio and how it will be supported. This will need to be rectified if, as promised, audiences are to enjoy a new golden age of programming.”