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The Media Act 2024

06 June 2024

The Media Act 2024 received Royal Assent after the parliamentary “wash-up” at the end of May 2024. Among other things, it is aimed at levelling the playing field between linear and streamed content by bringing the streamers under new Ofcom rules. It followed a White Paper on media regulation and a draft Media Bill, which was subject to consultation.

The Act’s provisions extend and apply to the whole of the UK except for the repeal of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which only extends and applies to England and Wales.

The Act’s headline changes are:

  • Plans to bring video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ under new Ofcom rules and aims to ensure public service broadcasters’ on-demand services are easy to discover on smart TVs and streaming sticks;
  • New reforms to guarantee access to UK radio on smart speakers and cut red tape for commercial radio stations; and
  • Streaming services will be required to provide subtitles, audio description and signing to support people with disabilities.

Video-on-demand services (VoD)

Most video-on-demand services are not covered by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which sets the content standards for harmful, offensive and accurate material found on television. Some services are not regulated in the UK at all, despite being much more popular with younger people than traditional broadcasters are. Consequently, the Act aims to level the playing field between public service broadcasters and video-on-demand services.

The Act brings mainstream VoD services under rules like those that already apply to linear TV in respect of harmful content and impartiality. This aims to ensure that UK audiences, especially children, are better and more consistently protected from harmful material. Mainstream VoD services which are not based in the UK and are not currently regulated by Ofcom may also be designated as “Tier 1” under regulations yet to be published. Such “Tier 1” mainstream VoDs which are not based in the UK will have to comply with many of the rules that currently apply to VoDs regulated in the UK. These include rules relating to advertising, such as the delayed restrictions on advertising HFSS food and drink, and the rules on programme sponsorship and product placement. The VoD rules on programme sponsorship and product placement are, however, different to those that apply to linear broadcasters, so the Act does not achieve complete consolidation/consistency. It’s also worth noting that the Act does not extend the rules of European Works requirements to the non-UK Tier 1 VoDs.

Ofcom will need to consider the age of a programme when drawing up the VoD Code, following concerns that otherwise, requirements such as due impartiality which currently apply for traditional broadcasters, could provide an undue burden for streaming platforms if applied to an entire content library. It will also have to consider additional steps viewers might have taken to access content - such as paying for a specific film or TV show, given a viewer may have different expectations, and may be less likely to be harmed, than someone who ends up stumbling onto content by flicking between different channels.

Ofcom will be also required to develop a new accessibility code for Tier 1 services, to ensure that these on-demand services are accessible to those with disabilities. Subtitles are carried on the majority of VoD programming, but this can be inconsistent across services and audio description and signing are less common. new quotas on subtitles, audio description and signing will be set for on-demand services. Streaming platforms will have to provide subtitles on 80% of their programmes, while 10% must have audio description and 5% signed interpretation.

VoD viewers will now be able to formally complain to Ofcom, and the Act strengthens Ofcom’s duty to assess audience protection measures on VoDs such as age ratings and viewer guidance. Ofcom will have more robust powers to investigate and take action to enforce standards if it considers it appropriate, including issuing fines of up to £250,000 and, in the most serious and repeated cases, restricting a service’s availability in the UK.

Public service broadcasting (PSB)

The Act replaces the outdated purposes and objectives for UK PSBs, set out in the Communications Act 2003 and in their individual licences, with a new remit which the government says is better suited for the digital age.

The PSBs are given greater flexibility as to how they deliver on their obligations, which the government says will make it easier to share distinctively British programming and impartial news with viewers on a range of platforms, including on-demand services. PSBs are required to ensure an “appropriate range of programme genres” are available on their services, protecting against a potential reduction in specialist genres of shows - such as religious, science and arts programming. A specific requirement for PSBs to continue to broadcast news and children’s programming is included.

The government originally planned to privatise Channel 4, but this plan was dropped. It will no longer be barred from producing its own content, if it chooses to do so, and has a new legal duty to consider its long-term sustainability alongside the delivery of its public service remit.

The Act boosts S4C, the Welsh language broadcaster, by removing geographic restrictions – confirming it can broaden its reach in the UK and beyond and offer its content on a range of new digital services.

Major online TV platforms used by a significant number of UK viewers - such as smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks - are legally required to carry and prominently feature designated PSB services, such as on-demand platforms like BBC iPlayer, ITVX, All 4, My5, S4C’s Clic and STV Player.

Regulation of radio services

Commercial radio is regulated under legislation developed in the late 1980s, which is no longer fit for purpose. As such, in 2017, the government consulted on deregulating analogue commercial radio licensing.

The Act therefore relaxes content and format requirements on commercial radio, allowing stations a much larger degree of flexibility to update or adapt their services without needing consent from Ofcom, with the aim of reducing the sector’s regulatory burdens and costs.

The reforms replace requirements based on commitments given in licence applications (in some cases 20 or 30 years ago) with new, clearer requirements relating to the local news and information services (such as traffic and travel) provided by commercial stations to reflect the importance and value of these services to the public. The reforms also include additional provisions to help manage any eventual switchover of radio to digital and to enable Ofcom to licence overseas radio stations.

The Act also aims to ensure that BBC, commercial and community stations across the UK remain accessible to listeners via smart speakers. With the rapid growth of listening via voice-activated connected audio devices over recent years, UK radio is increasingly operating in an environment which is occupied by larger platforms with competing services and the capability to drive audiences elsewhere.

The Act provides that UK radio stations are not charged by these platforms for the provision of their live services to listeners, that platforms cannot overlay content (such as advertising) over the top of those services, and that stations are reliably provided in response to listeners’ voice commands. It will also enable broadcasters to request a default route for their stations to be delivered to listeners.

Listed events regime

Under current rules, the listed events regime prohibits the exclusive broadcast of an event on the list drawn up by the Secretary of State without prior consent from Ofcom and ensures the availability of the rights to live coverage of listed events to free to air broadcasters who meet certain criteria. Broadcast channels which are received by 95% of the UK population and which are free to air are categorised as "qualifying services".

The Act updates the listed events regime to ensure that the range of "qualifying services" that fall within the scope of the regime includes both television programme services and internet programme services, and amends the conditions so that qualifying services must be provided by a PSB (this is currently the de facto case as only channels that meet this criteria are provided by PSBs).

Listed events include major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, FIFA World Cup, FA Cup Final, the Grand National and Wimbledon finals.

Other changes

The Act also reflects the government’s commitment to repeal section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which was not in force, but would theoretically have required news publishers to pay both sides’ costs in any legal proceedings if not a member of an approved regulator.

Next steps

It is not yet clear when the Act’s provisions will come into force, although Ofcom has published a roadmap setting out proposed timetables for consulting on, and drafting new codes of practice. These suggest most provisions will be in force between 2025 and 2027 with a one year grace period between the main VOD Code coming into force and being enforced.

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