Media Bill to maximise potential of British TV and radio

  • New measures added to ensure a wide range of TV genres continue to be shown by the UK’s main broadcasters, and to protect free access to crown jewel sports events 
  • Bill will help Britain’s public service broadcasters (PSBs) make more hit shows and ensure they are prominently shown on smart TVs and via streaming sticks
  • A new Ofcom-regulated Video-on-demand Code for major streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ will better protect children and most vulnerable

TV and radio audiences could see more high quality British programmes hitting screens and speakers as new laws to maximise the potential of UK broadcasters are debated in Parliament today (Tues 21 Nov).

The Media Bill, which has its Second Reading in the House of Commons today, will update decades-old legislation to unleash the power of British broadcasters to attract bigger audiences in the UK and abroad, empowering them to invest in new talent and technology while supporting the government’s ambition to grow the creative industries by £50 billion and one million jobs by 2030.

Among the Bill’s measures, the PSBs are set to gain more control over their TV schedules and on-demand offerings through more flexible rules on the types of programmes they are required to show, allowing each PSB to focus more on the content it is uniquely positioned to deliver.

Following feedback on the draft Bill, the laws will now require PSBs 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 Bill will ensure British audiences continue to access free live coverage of our biggest sporting moments, like the Fifa World Cup and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. A loophole which could have seen unregulated streaming services bypass the regime that protects free access to these major sport events will be closed, after Ministers updated the Bill. 

The new definition of “relevant services” ensures that TV-like services not currently captured by the listed events regime but providing live content to UK audiences via the internet, will now be captured. This will ensure the rights for listed events continue to be offered on fair and reasonable terms to PSBs as sport audience viewing habits evolve.

Opening the debate, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer is expected to say:

We are in a golden age for the silver screen and our public service broadcasters are a major reason why. Whether it’s reality shows like the Great British Bake Off and I’m A Celebrity, or dramas like Time, Happy Valley or Broadchurch – our public service broadcasters have proven they can go toe-to-toe with the streaming giants.

But success today is never a guarantee of success tomorrow. The rise of streaming giants and on-demand content, YouTube and smartphones, tablets and Tik Tok have combined to reshape our whole broadcasting landscape.

It is our job to enact reforms that keep our broadcasters at the top of their game in the years ahead. This Bill will do that by levelling the playing field, removing threats to their sustainability and opening up new opportunities to maximise growth and unlock potential.

This Bill has media freedom at its core. Section 40, and the possibility of publishers having to pay the legal costs of the people who sue them, even if they win, has hung over our media like a Sword of Damocles. This Bill removes the sword for good.

S4C Chief Operating Officer Elin Morris said: 

The Media Bill will confirm S4C’s position as a multi-platform Welsh-language content provider across the UK and beyond.

The new framework will ensure that indigenous languages, including Welsh, are part of the new public service remit for television in the UK.

The Bill will extend legislation for online TV viewing and ensure that S4C Clic is available on connected TVs and prominent on TV sets in Wales.

This will allow us to further develop our services and place Welsh-language content on the main platforms across the UK.

Other measures in the Media Bill

The legislation will support our world-class public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, STV and S4C – through new requirements for their apps and content to be shown prominently on popular smart TVs and streaming sticks.

Audiences will benefit from stronger protections from harmful or age-inappropriate shows through a new Ofcom regulated Video-on-demand Code on the biggest streaming platforms and new requirements for subtitling, audio description and signing to cover mainstream on-demand services. 

UK radio will receive new protections to ensure services are easily accessible on smart speakers – from major national stations to the smallest community stations – and obsolete red tape putting an unnecessary burden on commercial radio services will be removed.

Laws which threatened to force newspapers to pay both sides’ costs in any legal proceedings, even if they won, will be repealed via the Bill. The Bill will boost S4C, the Welsh language broadcaster, by allowing it to broaden its reach in the UK and beyond and offer its content on a range of new digital services.

As announced earlier this month, Channel 4 will get new freedoms to make and own its content to boost its long-term sustainability, while new safeguards for production companies would protect millions of pounds of investment in programmes made by independent TV producers across the UK.




The Bill will ensure PSB apps – such as BBC iPlayer, ITVX, Channel 4 and My5 – and programmes are easy to find on smart TVs and similar devices, for example when browsing the homepage and relevant recommendation lists. The changes will protect PSBs’ place at the heart of the UK’s media landscape as people increasingly tune in via a growing variety of streaming platforms, expanding on existing protections under the Communications Act 2003 which ensure PSB TV channels always take the top position (channels 1 to 5) on electronic programme guides – or ‘TV guides’. 

Video-on-demand code

Mainstream video-on-demand (VoD) service consumed in the UK – such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ – will be required to follow similar Ofcom content rules to those currently in place for traditional broadcasters, creating a more level playing field and ensuring that UK viewers – particularly children and parents – can be confident that protections from harmful material are in place, whether they tune in via traditional channels or an on-demand app.

According to Ofcom, younger adults watch almost seven times less broadcast TV than those aged 65 and over. Nine out of ten 18-24 year old adults bypass TV channels and head straight to streaming services.

Ofcom notes that one in five UK households, or 5.2 million homes, are signed up to all three of the most popular streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+. But video-on-demand services, except BBC iPlayer, are not covered by Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code, which sets appropriate content standards for harmful, offensive and accurate material found on television. Some on-demand services are not regulated in the UK at all.

Following extensive consultation with the industry, the Bill has been changed to instruct Ofcom to consider the age of a programme when drawing up the VoD Code – following concerns that, without this change, requirements such as around due impartiality which currently apply for traditional broadcasters could provide an undue burden for streaming platforms if applied to its entire content library..

The Bill will also require Ofcom, when drawing up the VoD Code, 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.

Repealing Section 40

Laws which could risk preventing UK newspapers from pursuing valuable public interest stories will be removed from the statute books via the Bill. Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, a law which is not in force, could have required news publishers to pay both sides’ costs in any legal proceedings if not a member of an approved regulator.

Section 40 was brought in as a result of the Leveson Inquiry as an incentive to encourage the press to join a recognised self-regulator. Since then, a stronger self-regulatory system for the press has been established and new challenges are threatening the sustainability of many print outlets – particularly local newspapers who stood to be hardest hit from the legislation.

A public consultation found a huge majority (79%) backed repealing Section 40, with many arguing it could have stopped publishers from undertaking valuable investigative journalism, or publishing stories that are critical of individuals, for fear of being taken to court and having to pay for both sides.

A simpler, more flexible remit for public service broadcasters

The Bill 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 is better suited for the digital age,  replacing a long list of overlapping requirements with a more flexible regime focused on content which would make the UK poorer as a nation – culturally, economically and democratically – if it was not provided. 

Quotas for independent, original and regional productions are retained, but PSBs will be given greater flexibility as to how they deliver on these obligations, making it easier to share distinctively British programming and programmes made across the country with viewers on a range of platforms, including on-demand services. Online programming will now count towards meeting their public service remit, not just on linear TV channels, as it stands today. Ofcom will get new powers, where appropriate and proportionate, to require PSBs to provide more of a particular type of programming if audiences are being underserved.

Channel 4 reforms and new safeguards for TV production companies

As announced at the Media Bill’s first reading, the UK’s TV production industry will benefit from a package of new safeguards as the government proceeds with reforms – including via the Media Bill – to support Channel 4’s long-term sustainability.

Earlier this year the government committed to giving Channel 4 the ability to make and own some of its content, opening up new options for the broadcaster to diversify its revenues and improve its resilience. In the event Channel 4 takes advantage of these new freedoms, new safeguards for production companies would protect millions of pounds of investment in programmes made by independent TV producers across the UK, as the proportion of programmes the broadcaster is required to commission from these companies will increase from 25 per cent to 35 per cent. 

The Bill also gives Ofcom new duties to review how Channel 4 uses new freedoms to make and own its content, should it choose to do so, as part of plans to ensure the wider sector is not unduly impacted.


The Bill will update S4C’s public service remit to include digital and online services and remove the current geographical broadcasting restrictions. This will allow S4C to broaden its reach and offer its content on a range of new platforms. The new online prominence framework introduced by the Bill includes the requirement for major TV platforms to carry and give prominence to designated S4C services in Wales. S4C will also benefit from greater clarity on its ability to invest and generate commercial revenue.  

In response to the independent review of S4C, Building an S4C for the future, published in 2018, the Bill fulfils the Government’s commitment to implementing a number of recommendations to support S4C in adapting to rapid technological and market change. We are therefore putting S4C’s new unitary board and audit arrangements, recommended by the review and already implemented on an administrative basis, on a statutory footing.  

Finally, the Bill will enable S4C and the BBC to agree an alternative arrangement for BBC support to S4C, to better suit the evolving broadcasting landscape and the changing way in which people access content.

Listed events

The listed events regime – which helps ensure major sport events of national interest are available to view live and for free by the widest possible audience – will be updated to make qualification dependent on being free to air and via a PSB. Listed events include major sporting events such as the Olympic Games, Paralympic Games, FIFA World Cup, FA Cup Final, Grand National and Wimbledon finals. It will mean that PSBs will continue to benefit from the regime in the future and will support audiences’ ability to access these events for free.

Accessibility rules for streaming platforms

Those with sight or hearing impairments will be able to enjoy more shows as new quotas on subtitles, audio description and signing will be set for on-demand services. For the first time, streaming platforms will have to provide subtitles on 80 per cent of their programmes, while 10 per cent must have audio description and 5 per cent signed interpretation. Subtitles are carried on the majority of programming on streaming services, but this can be inconsistent across services and audio description and signing are rarer, so the Bill will help ensure those with sight or hearing impairments can enjoy more of their favourite shows.

Smart speaker rules

The UK radio industry will benefit from new protections 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 Bill will ensure 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.

Regulation changes on commercial radio

The Bill will also axe redundant red tape holding back commercial radio stations, saving the industry up to £1 million a year. Commercial radio is regulated under legislation developed in the late 1980s, which is no longer fit for purpose as radio transitions from an analogue past to a digital future. As such, in February 2017, the Government launched a consultation outlining proposals to deregulate analogue commercial radio licensing.

This legislation delivers on that consultation, relaxing 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, thereby reducing the sector’s regulatory burdens and costs

The reforms will 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.

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