Media Minister John Whittingdale has announced new measures aimed at protecting the creation of “uniquely British” TV, and to help public service broadcasters (PSBs) compete with the US streaming giants in the digital age.

The government says that shows such as Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, The Bodyguard and Planet Earth have been huge international hits but also reflect Britain and British values.  Plans have been announced to expand the types of programmes the nation’s PSBs are required to produce and air to include ‘distinctively British’ content.

In the face of increased foreign investment and competition, the move aims to facilitate the UK being a creative powerhouse for unique, high-quality TV shows which showcase British culture and are enjoyed the world over.

In addition, there are plans to legislate to ensure PSB content is always carried and discoverable to UK audiences on connected devices and major online platforms, including smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks, as more and more viewers use them rather than traditional TV.

Proposals for these measures will be included in a Broadcasting White Paper to be published this autumn. The detail will build on recommendations from Ofcom for a principles-based approach to prominence which is proportionate and adaptable for the future, and is likely to mean a role for Ofcom to develop guidance and have the necessary enforcement powers.

New ‘Britishness’ requirements

UK PSBs currently have requirements in their remits to broadcast ‘original’ content. This was previously considered sufficient to ensure their programming had a characteristically British dimension.

However, the globalisation of broadcasting means that more of the content we watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the UK, with an international cast, communicating in US English. This risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for UK audiences, as well as reducing what the government terms its soft power abroad.

The government is therefore considering adding to the definition of ‘original productions’ and making the focus of the PSB system more explicit on content that contributes to British culture and allows UK audiences to see their own way of life and representations of themselves reflected on TV.

Details will be set out in the White Paper, but it could mean Ofcom issuing genre-specific guidance for PSBs against which to measure their programmes, requirements to use predominantly British talent or greater priority being given to national sporting and cultural ‘moments’ that bring people together.

PSB prominence on digital platforms

Current ‘prominence’ rules state that the PSBs must be listed in the first five slots in electronic programme guides on TV sets. However, these rules do not extend to TV guides and other user interfaces within online TV platforms. Therefore, the rules will be updated so that PSB content is legally required to be carried across popular online TV platforms including smart TVs, pay TV services, streaming sticks and set top boxes.

The PSB on-demand services (e.g. BBC iPlayer, ITV Hub, All 4 and My5 and regional services like S4C’s Clic and STV Player) will also need to be easily findable on platform user interfaces such as homepages.

The government says that this will be a significant boost to the future sustainability of public service broadcasting, ensuring UK viewers can continue to access the PSB content they value in years to come on whichever platform they choose to watch it