UK to rein in online platforms’ power in effort to protect public broadcasters

Google, Amazon and Samsung’s bargaining power with broadcasters is set to be reined in by the UK government under the world’s most far-reaching reforms to protect the position of public service media in a digital era.

Ministers are to clear legislative time as soon as next year for an overhaul of broadcasting rules to guarantee the prominence of public service media (PSM) such as BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 on smart televisions, according to Whitehall officials. The measures will draw on recommendations to be published next month by Ofcom, the media regulator.

Tough enforcement powers would effectively insist internet-connected televisions carry PSM apps and content in prime positions on streaming interfaces, a requirement that strengthens the power of broadcasters in commercial negotiations with device makers and platform services, according to people familiar with the plans.

Television executives and regulators are drawing parallels with how Australia used regulatory powers to force “gateway” platforms to pay publishers for news — conditions Facebook protested against by temporarily removing news from its service in the country.

The prominence regime would safeguard the position of the BBC and its access to viewer data but may be even more important for commercial broadcasters. ITV has described the reforms as vital to ensure it receives “fair value” from television platforms for its investment in programming.

Ofcom is expected by media executives and Whitehall officials to support the government using backstop powers to break the deadlock where a broadcaster is unable to agree terms with a platform provider over placement, data or commercial payments. Roku, the US maker of streaming devices, warned policymakers in a submission to Ofcom against placing “their thumb on the scales” in favour of a particular business model.

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One Whitehall figure involved with the policy said ministers and Downing Street “are convinced and want to do it”, likening the intervention to the way Australia encouraged global platforms to reach more favourable commercial deals with local media groups. Another government source said one priority was ensuring the regulation was “future proof” as viewing habits and technologies evolve.

The planned reforms would avoid the UK moving to US-style distribution terms, where providers such as Roku or Amazon can demand up to 30 per cent of a broadcaster’s advertising revenue or ad inventory viewed on the platform in exchange for being carried on the smart TV.

While Amazon, Google or television makers such as Samsung have lacked the leverage to impose such terms in the UK, broadcasters say negotiations with them are already difficult. Ofcom has noted that LG’s 2020 televisions were launched with no streaming apps from PSBs.

ITV, Channel 4 and ViacomCBS-owned Channel 5 want the regulatory framework to set a minimum requirement for the prominence of core public service media content, leaving them better placed to potentially charge for “additional functionality”, in terms of programming or services.

“Prominence isn’t enough on its own if global platforms can use their financial muscle to squeeze the value out of PSM investments,” ITV wrote in its submission to Ofcom. “Regulation must guarantee us the opportunity to negotiate deals that fairly reflect the value of our risky investment in UK content.”

Reforms to guarantee prominence for public service broadcasters were first recommended by Ofcom in 2019 as it became clear existing rules covering electronic programme guides on traditional televisions were being overtaken by technology and viewing habits.

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But the full details of an enforcement regime were left open, and until the pandemic some parts of government were sceptical of the urgency of the issue. The House of Commons select committee for digital, culture, media and sport has criticised ministers for being “too slow” to act on the issue.

Oliver Dowden, culture secretary, has put prominence on the agenda of a separate review of public service broadcasting, which is also examining the potential privatisation of Channel 4. Strong prominence rules would potentially bolster the commercial value of the channel.

ITV submitted to Ofcom a mock-up of prominence legislation, based around a “core regulated offer” that would be imposed on providers, at their cost, if commercial terms could not be agreed with a broadcaster. Ofcom has also studied an arbitration model, with parallels to Australia’s approach, as an alternative to resolve disputes.

Samsung has warned MPs that mandatory prominence requirements would raise costs for the UK sector, potentially increasing prices for consumers, and stifle innovation.

Another open issue is whether platforms such as YouTube, which has hosted 8.7bn views of content from UK public broadcasters, should be covered by the prominence framework or other reforms being considered by government.

Google, which also makes operating systems for smart TVs, warned Ofcom that extending “must carry” rules on PSM to YouTube would make “little sense from either a commercial or public interest point of view”.



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