IMPARTIAL INFORMATION: THE LAST BASTION OF OUR DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY?

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IMPARTIAL INFORMATION: THE LAST BASTION OF OUR DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY?

This post is by committee member Hugh Sheppard. It is about the current broadcast landscape and the non-regulation of internet content and reflects Hugh’s viewpoint.

Ofcom is the regulator for broadcasting standards, but the content of online radio and television is beyond its scope. It is time to shout about this from the rooftops.

Analysis of Ofcom’s Communications Market Report (CMR) for 2017 brings home just how close we may be to the cliff edge of unregulated radio and television news as an influence on British society as we have come to know it.
In the UK, the impartiality of broadcast news is set out in the Communications Act of 2003. This requires Ofcom and the BBC:

“To ensure that news, in whatever form, is reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.

Non-broadcast radio and television services delivered online have no such obligation. The CMR draws no attention to this, but shows that Ofcom’s regulatory responsibility for broadcast impartiality is fast becoming out of date with the rapid expansion of online TV; mainly sourced from the US and unregulated within the UK.

Ofcom’s mandate to regulate broadcasting was extended earlier this year to the BBC, but its writ does not run to internet content. Nonetheless, it compares the competitive relevance of audio video (AV) online distribution with broadcasting. The attributed revenue shows this as the fastest growing sector of the television and AV market, with returns of £0.6bn in 2013 and £1.7bn in 2016; a growth rate of over 40% pa. Although these figures are tabled under the ’UK television industry’, they are excluded from the £54.9bn Ofcom ascribes to the ‘Total UK communications revenue’. Conversely, the stability of broadcast television revenue is remarkable, with less than a 5% change since £13.3bn in 2011 to £13.8bn in 2016 (CPI adjusted).

Significantly, the average time spent per person watching broadcast TV is now 30 minutes per day less than in 2011. (2016: 3hrs 32mins pp pd. CMR table 2.1). The over-64s spend half as much time again as the average, but crucially, the 16 – 24s now watch broadcast TV for less than 2 hours per day.

For the last four years, some 51% of TV viewing time has been spent in watching just 5 channels of the main public service broadcasters (PSBs); BBC-1, BBC-2, ITV, Ch.4 & Ch.5. This rises to over 66% when PSB portfolio channels are included. Taking PSBs as a whole, the BBC retained a viewing share of over 50% in 2016, down a little as an outcome of moving BBC Three online. (All figures from the CMR).

THE CHANGING MARKET PLACE
The biggest issue for the BBC and for PSBs as a group has to be the rise of online viewing, be it on a TV set, tablet, PC or mobile phone. The 30 minutes per day lost to broadcast viewing since 2011 is more than made up from audio-visual content on the internet. Within the panoply of social and AV services on offer, Facebook and YouTube have been joined by on demand and streaming services including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and others funded by pay-per-view, eg. Sky’s NOW TV, or advertising such as the news channel Buzzfeed, and also BT’s hybrid YouView.
Simultaneously, the availability of smart TVs that are internet ready and the bundling of communication services has compromised the almost universal take-up of Freeview and Freesat for viewing broadcasts covered by the licence fee. A third of homes now bundle their landline with broadband, while another third includes Pay TV.

This provides immediate scope for a seamless transition between:
• viewing broadcast television, including Pay TV;
• internet viewing of catch-up services and other portfolio channels;
• Pay TV and hybrid Freeview + subscription services;
• Non-broadcast video on demand; funded by subscription or advertising;
• Pay-per-view series and events, purchased individually or within a service.
All are viewable on almost any device, from a large-screen TV to a mobile phone.

This is the true convergence of television reception, so long anticipated as the holy grail of programme distribution, but to the viewer it also represents the convergence of funding, be it by licence-fee, subscription or advertising.

WHAT NEXT?
Just as most Sky subscribers today may not know or care if they watch BBC TV via Freeview, their Skybox or from Sky Q online, the television viewer in future will not readily know if what he or she is watching is a broadcast or is only on the internet.
If legal requirements stay as they are, with Ofcom’s mandate limited to broadcasting and inapplicable online, the fluid transition between TV sources and devices will deny any reference criteria as to whether an on screen news presentation is required to be impartial or is free from Ofcom regulation.
This throws more light on another pending issue for broadcasting, and hence for UK society at large, about whether the takeover of Sky plc by US media conglomerate 21st Century Fox is to be sanctioned by the culture secretary, Karen Bradley MP.
If the deal goes through, the risk is that today’s Sky UK, currently masquerading as a British company, can throw off its cloak of news impartiality to spearhead UK versions of US owned, unregulated, online news channels, starting perhaps with Fox News and possibly followed by Breitbart or a ‘service’ from the rightwing Sinclair News Group, already the largest owner of local TV stations in the US.
Faced with a trumped-up assault led by Rupert Murdoch on our familiar standards, should we just accept that Ofcom only regulates broadcasts, while anything goes online where BT and the BBC are the only UK internet players of substance?

If this all seems to be crying wolf, look again at the 180% increase of internet TV industry revenues in the UK since 2013. At that rate, online non-broadcast revenues will match broadcast television revenues of £13.8bn in just 5 years from 2017. But it would amount to more than that because, were it to happen, this would surely herald an end to the era of television broadcasting.

Isn’t it high time for Government, the Minister, the BBC and the public to shout that enough is enough over such a media challenge from ‘the land of the free’?

29th August 2017

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