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Public Service Broadcasters

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the speech of the Chief Executive of Ofcom on 28 November 2018 in which she encouraged public service broadcasters to collaborate to compete with global giants such as Netflix and Amazon in producing high-quality original content.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter and with her permission, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, the Government recognise many of the issues and new challenges facing our public service broadcasters, highlighted by the Ofcom chief executive in her speech on 28 November last year. The Government are committed to supporting the PSBs to ensure that they continue to meet audience needs in future and remain at the heart of our world-class TV industry. This may mean PSBs collaborating to compete and forming new partnerships to achieve greater reach and impact. The BritBox proposal recently announced by the BBC and ITV is an example of this, and we look forward to seeing more detail on this service as it develops.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that in this fast-changing world—with US-based on-demand video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon and now Apple increasingly penetrating the UK market—we need an agile regulatory regime that does not act as a brake on UK innovation? Netflix updates its platform once a week, yet it could take up to eight months for Ofcom to approve very modest changes to the BBC’s iPlayer. Should we not find a quicker way to approve BBC initiatives that benefit UK audiences and new proposals—such as the joint venture proposed by ITV and the BBC for BritBox—that could provide additional investment for new British content?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we should have nimble and agile PSBs and therefore a regulatory system that is capable of dealing with that. The analogy he draws is not quite correct. Netflix can change its platform overnight because it has to consider only Netflix, whereas Ofcom has to consider the whole regulatory landscape. It is therefore important that it takes into account what effect it has if the BBC changes something such as the iPlayer. I take the point he makes about being nimble and agile and moving with the times. The chief executive of Ofcom made that point exactly when she said that it needed to be,

“a forward-looking regulator that supports the future success of UK TV, firmly rooted in the online world”.

My Lords, collaboration obviously brings opportunities, but will my noble friend comment on the importance of ensuring, and indeed what is being done to ensure, that PSBs carry on making programmes that the UK viewer wants to watch—as opposed, perhaps, to what the American viewer wants to watch?

My noble friend is absolutely right. This is one problem with US subscription services. They spend a huge amount on content. Netflix spent £4.6 billion on content in 2017 and Amazon spent £3.4 billion, but only £150 million of that was UK-made TV, whereas the public service broadcasters spent £2.6 billion on UK content.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s replies to questions thus far put, but in the speech that occasioned the Question the Ofcom commissioner talked about competition and collaboration between the public service broadcasters and the great platforms that we are talking about—the FANGs. In other words, this is not just about competition between public service broadcasters and these various bodies; collaboration needs to happen between them. She points to certain instances such as “King Lear” and “Dracula” that are evidence of such collaboration already taking place.

I must not outlast my welcome, but I have one tiny thing to finish. Apart from BritBox—this thing that is coming between ITV and the BBC—I have recently been made aware of other boxes that are the result of piracy and people taking the market away from all the bodies that we have thus far discussed. What kind of eye are we keeping on such activities in this ever-emerging field?

The noble Lord is right that there has already been a lot of collaboration. Collaboration exists between Netflix and other subscription video on demand services and the public service broadcasters. That will continue and is being encouraged. Illegal boxes are illegal. They will be prosecuted within the law because they take away the benefits that public service broadcasting brings to ordinary citizens and consumers in this country.

My Lords, one protection for public service broadcasters in the 2003 Act was prominence in the listings, yet now both the FANGs that have been described and the manufacturers are calculatingly getting around the listings to shunt public service broadcasting into the sidings. It will need from the Government and the regulator more than passive observation. Active action will be needed if the PSBs are to be protected.

I agree with that. That is why we promised to legislate when Ofcom gives us its recommendations for the online prominence regime. If it needs legislation, the Secretary of State says that we will do that.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that Ofcom found that RT had breached the regulations seven times? Is he concerned that the appeal by RT is taking a very long time? Meanwhile, it is continuing to pump out Putin’s propaganda all over the United Kingdom, with polemic programmes fronted by people such as George Galloway and Alex Salmond.

One difference between this country and Russia is that there is a rule of law. The legal process is being followed, which includes regulation that Parliament has given to Ofcom, independent of government. That will be followed, and I trust that something useful will happen from it.

My Lords, will BritBox be available to British holidaymakers in Spain, France and so on, and to British expats who are resident there? I ask because I was approached on holiday in Spain some years ago by a local provider of British television who wanted to negotiate a legitimate fee-paying service with freeview suppliers, including the BBC and ITV. But when he approached the heads of the BBC and ITV, they were not interested. That does not seem sensible.

The difference with BritBox is that it is a commercial service and therefore that it will be in its interest to get as many people to pay as possible. It already exists in America. I cannot answer precisely on whether it will be available in Europe, but there will be different motivations for the BBC and ITV, as this is a commercial service and they will want as many subscribers as they can get.