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Global streamers face UK regulation

Oliver Dowden called for The Crown to be labelled as fiction

Global streamers including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ could soon be subject to similar regulations in the UK as linear broadcasters after the government announced it is considering new rules for VoD services.

The UK government has started a review of the nation’s broadcasting framework to decide whether a new regime protecting VoD viewers by using age ratings and tightening impartiality guidelines for factual content is necessary.

The plans could see streaming services held to account by media regulator Ofcom in the same way as broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and Sky. The BBC iPlayer is currently the only streamer that has to fully abide by Ofcom’s broadcasting code.

SVoD platforms Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and AppleTV+ are not regulated in any way, while others receive less scrutiny than linear channels and do not have to follow restrictions on harmful content or accuracy. All VoD services in the UK are, however, currently bound by rules preventing hate content and inappropriate material for children.

Oliver Dowden

As well as protecting viewers, the government is aiming to level the playing field for public service broadcasters (PSBs) trying to take on the global players. This would involve making their content more prominent online and on all devices, from phones to smart TVs. A white paper on the subject is due in the autumn.

The UK broadcast sector’s current regulations form part of the Communications Act of 2003, which preceded the arrival of streaming platforms.

One concern the government has is about the supply of PSBs’ own shows to global streamers, as has happened with the BBC’s Fleabag and Peaky Blinders, among others. Last week, the government called on platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to share their viewing figures for such acquired shows.

“Technology has transformed broadcasting but the rules protecting viewers and helping our traditional channels compete are from an analogue age,” said Oliver Dowden, secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who last year suggested Netflix drama The Crown should carry a clarification that it was a work of fiction.

“The time has come to look at how we can unleash the potential of our public service broadcasters while also making sure viewers and listeners consuming content on new formats are served by a fair and well-functioning system,” he continued.

Writing in The Times newspaper, Dowden added: “We need to level the playing field and address one blatant disparity forcing traditional broadcasters to compete with one hand tied behind their backs.”

As part of these moves, his department is also exploring the possibility of privatising Channel 4 to make it better able to compete and less reliant on advertising, which currently makes up over 90% of its revenue. The channel has been publicly owned since its launch in 1982. The broadcaster’s bosses yesterday hit back at the latest proposals.


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