The UK Government believes that programming should appeal to a wide range of tastes and interests, and to people of different ages and backgrounds. This is reflected in the current regulatory arrangements. The Communications Act 2003 established Ofcom as the independent media regulatory body, replacing five prior regulators. The work of Ofcom and the Communications Act are intended to ensure that commercial television and radio, telecommunications networks and wireless and satellite services operate, compete and develop in the greater public interest. Ofcom also has a number of powers in relation to BBC television and radio and advises the Secretary of State on proposed newspaper mergers. The Act requires Ofcom to carry out regular reviews of the fulfilment of the public service broadcasting remit set out in the Act.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is a world-renowned public service broadcaster whose main income has been generated by a licence fee that everyone under 75 must pay if they have a TV or radio (see also chapter 3.5.3). The BBC’s Royal Charter and its agreement with the government include obligations to provide a properly balanced service consisting of a wide range of subject matter and to serve the tastes and needs of different audiences. There are five main public service broadcasting (PSB) analogue terrestrial channels -BBC1, BBC 2, Channel 3 Services, Channel 4 and Channel 5.
The prominence of PSB traditional linear channels within electronic programme guidelines (EPGs) is protected by rules set out in Ofcom’s EPG Code. Under the Digital Economy Act 2017, Ofcom has an obligation to review the EPG Code by December 2020 and it has submitted recommendations for a new framework to keep PSB TV prominent for the main five broadcasters and other PSB and local TV services in the context of viewers increasingly watching TV online.
The British Film Institute launched a GB£ 57 million Young Audiences Content Fund in 2019 to support the creation of high-quality new programming for children and young audiences up to 18 for free to access TV and online platforms regulated by OFCOM. The fund, financed by DCMS, is intended to redress an historic lack of investment in content creation for younger audiences and enable public service broadcasters to compete for children’s attention in a saturated market.
The BBC initiated a new diversity and inclusion strategy in 2016 intended to ensure diversity issues are reflected in what it does on and off air. It established new on-air portrayal targets for women, disabled people, ethnic minorities and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Diversity commissioning guidelines were developed in consultation with the independent production sector and the BBC established a GB£ 2.1 million Diversity Creative Talent Fund. It also set targets for achieving a diverse workforce. Ironically, arguments within the BBC were publicly aired when some female broadcasters revealed that they were paid considerately less than male colleagues.
In 2018 a Thematic Review on Representation on Portrayal on BBC Television by Ofcom found that audiences consider both BBC and TV in general is better at portraying a wider mix of people than in the past, though some communities still felt less visible on screen or were concerned about being presented in one-dimensional or stereotypical ways.
Under the Communications Act, government has been able to refer any attempt to extend cross-media ownership to Ofcom to ensure that it is not likely to reduce the plurality of the UK media. Based on Ofcom’s conclusions an assessment is made on whether or not the bid should be allowed to proceed. Some concern has been expressed about attempts by News International to extend its media interests in Britain further by acquiring 100% of BSkyB. However, this was overtaken by scandals caused by intrusive journalism (phone tapping) in one of its newspapers, which was closed down subsequently. The public and media furore that followed led the Government to set up a committee of enquiry chaired by Lord Leveson. This investigation recommended legislation to supervise the press. Subsequent political and media debate focussed on how current press self-regulation should be changed to strengthen press supervision. In the face of accusations that legislation would infringe freedom of expression, the Government decided to allow the press to continue self-regulation; there was widespread scepticism as to whether their response would prove effective and the perception that regulation is weak is widely held. In late 2019 the Competition and Markets Authoritywarned that a series of takeovers of local radio stations by Bauer Media could reduce competition and damage smaller stations.