TV rules revamp offers more bargaining power to BBC, ITV and C4

Ministers are to unveil the biggest overhaul of broadcasting rules in almost 20 years, handing the BBC, ITV and a privatised Channel 4 far greater bargaining power with digital TV platforms such as Sky, Amazon and Samsung.

Nadine Dorries, culture secretary, will on Thursday publish long-awaited plans to privatise Channel 4, revamp television regulations for a digital age, and give public service broadcasters a leg-up in the battle against global streaming services.

The white paper will pave the way for the controversial sale of Channel 4, introducing reforms to make the publicly-owned broadcaster more attractive to buyers by guaranteeing its prominence and removing restrictions on producing content.

A formal sale process for Channel 4 will start once relevant legislation is adopted, which ministers hope will be by the end of this year or early 2023. But the government faces serious resistance over the terms of the privatisation, both in the House of Lords and among some senior Tory MPs.

Dorries said the overhaul of “decades-old laws” would help public service broadcasters “compete in the internet age and usher in a new golden age for British TV and radio”.

Although a privatised Channel 4 would still be required to commission minimum quotas from independent producers, the government plans would end its status as a “publisher-broadcaster”, allowing it to retain valuable rights to shows or movies.

Other interventions will guarantee public service media apps such as BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub and All 4 are “easy to find” on online televisions, imposing a “must-carry” obligation on pay-TV providers such as Sky and TV makers such as Samsung.

Tough enforcement powers handed to media regulator Ofcom would in effect strengthen broadcasters in commercial negotiations with platforms over data, control of advertising revenue and even allow them to demand payment for content.

Television executives have drawn 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.

Should broadcasters and platforms fail to agree, Ofcom would be empowered to intervene and resolve the dispute, with guidelines that would aim to ensure the sustainability of public service media.

Ofcom has noted in the past that, outside the UK, Amazon’s Fire TV demands 30 per cent of advertising revenue in return for a prominent position on the platform, and that LG’s 2020 television set models were launched with no streaming apps from public service broadcasters.

The prominence regime would benefit the BBC in retaining access to viewer data but may be even more important for commercial broadcasters. ITV has said the reforms should help it receive “fair value” from television platforms for its programming investment.

The wide-ranging white paper will revise the remits for public service broadcasters for the first time since 2003, giving ITV or BBC more flexibility to meet obligations across digital different platforms.

Netflix, Disney, Amazon and other providers of on-demand video services would also for the first time be subject to rules setting standards for broadcasters on harmful material and accuracy.

ITV said it would “engage carefully” on the detail of the white paper but added: “Many of its proposals . . . look very sensible.”

Channel 4 said it was “committed to upholding and maximising its remit and public service purpose that has enabled it to shape Britain’s creative culture and make a significant contribution to the creative industries”.