Broadcast sponsorship (you know, the bumper ‘ads’ that say that your favourite show is sponsored by a brand and normally has some cheesy line which links it to the programme) is something we’re all familiar with. In fact, for those of us who favour watching TV we’ve recorded so we can whizz through the ads, they’re probably the only ads we watch.  Have you ever thought about why they include those cheesy lines, or how they’re regulated though? Probably not.

The rules on where broadcast sponsorship can be run, by who, around what programmes, and what they can include, are far from intuitive. They are also different depending on how you are broadcasting/streaming.

The recently passed Media Act 2024 has taken one step to try to consolidate the rules (see further below), and related product placement rules, but it’s still an inconsistent landscape.

It’s worth noting that the rules, enforced by Ofcom and set out in the Communications Act 2003 and Ofcom’s Codes/Rules, apply to the regulated broadcaster/service, not the advertiser.  The rules set out in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code apply to traditional linear (licensed) TV and radio broadcasters, but another set of rules, set out in Ofcom’s On Demand Programme Service (ODPS) Rules, apply to video on demand services regulated in the UK. The rules do not apply to most pure online streaming channels (provided they not also a video on demand channel). 

A recent Ofcom ruling is a demonstration of this fact….

Wrexham reminder

Ofcom has recently ruled that a radio station breached the sponsorship rules in the Broadcasting Code. 

Wrexham Premier Radio is a digital community radio station. A complaint was made to Ofcom, alleging that the broadcast of the station’s hourly news bulletin was sponsored by Inside Wrexham Magazine. 

The news bulletin was presented as follows: 

Voiceover: “Premier Radio News, sponsored by Inside Wrexham Magazine, part of the Inside Magazine Group. Your totally independent magazine providing affordable advertising to local businesses for over 11 years. Search for online or pick up your copy today”. 

Section 10 of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code contains rules that apply to commercial communications on radio (equivalent rules for TV are in Section 9). Rule 10.3 prohibits any commercial reference, or material that implies a commercial arrangement, in or around news bulletins (subject to specific exceptions). This is to ensure that news bulletins are not distorted, or perceived by listeners to be distorted, for commercial purposes. Ofcom’s guidance on Rule 10.3 says “prohibiting in news any material that implies a commercial arrangement is intended to prevent the more general promotion or unjustified prominence of products and services in news”.

Wrexham Premier Radio had previously been an online only streaming station. It said that the news bulletin had mistakenly included an outdated segment detailing a sponsorship arrangement that was in place before the station was licensed by Ofcom, ie when it was online only and not therefore subject to the rule. It explained that it had recently changed its playout system to address an issue with “out-of-date audio and unauthorised content playback”. During this transition, a news ident used when Premier Radio Wrexham operated exclusively as an internet station was erroneously included in the audio files. Premier Radio said that this resulted in the automated broadcast of the sponsorship credit in every hourly news bulletin from 12:00 until 18:00 on the day concerned. It then discovered the error and replaced it with a version which did not include the sponsorship credit. Premier Radio confirmed that the sponsorship arrangement took place when the station was online only and that it had concluded. It apologised for the error and provided reassurances that measures had been taken to prevent a similar issue occurring again. 

Ofcom prepared a Preliminary View that it considered the matter resolved and provided it to Premier Radio for its comments, although it didn’t provide any.

What changes does the Media Act make?

The recently passed Media Act 2024 introduces several changes to regulation of broadcast radio and TV, and video on demand services. See our briefing note for more information. One of the key aims is to put the standards required of linear TV broadcasters and video on demand platforms on a more equal footing. In respect of programme sponsorship, there is one change…

“On Demand Programme Services”, such as Amazon Prime Video, Discovery+ and ITVX are already subject to rules on programme sponsorship in the UK under the Communications Act 2003 and the Ofcom ODPS Rules. (The ODPS Rules are very similar to the rules in the Ofcom Broadcasting Code). 

Before the Media Act 2024 comes into effect (which will take place gradually over the next year or two), ODPS only fall under the UK/Ofcom’s jurisdiction if (in simple terms) the provider of the service has its headquarters in the UK and editorial decisions are made in the UK.  This has meant that several big ODPS platforms, including Netflix, have not be subject to the UK rules.  The Media Act seeks to remedy this by bringing such platforms that are based overseas, but have a large UK audience, under Ofcom’s regulatory remit.  These ODPS will be required to comply with the exiting ODPS Rules, including the sponsorship rules (and product placement rules). 

However, purely online radio and video streaming platforms (which do not have on demand functionality) continue to fall outside the scope of Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code and ODPS Rules. They may fall under the Ofcom’s remit under the Online Safety Act 2023, but that does not have rules equivalent to the sponsorship and product placement rules referenced above. So, the Media Act will not achieve complete consolidation or consistency. Given the increasing prevalence of online streaming channels, there are still going to be different standards depending on how you are watching/listening.

So, services like Wrexham Premier Radio, moving from one form of distribution to another, are still going to have to get their head around different regulations. It’s a complex landscape. Feel free to get in touch with us if you need assistance navigating it.