Insights Media Minister announces new rules for public service broadcasters (PSBs) to protect “distinctively British” TV programmes


In his speech to the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention 2021, Media Minister John Whittingdale MP announced new measures to protect the creation of uniquely British TV. He said that the measures would help PSBs compete with the US streaming giants in the digital age. Mr Whittingdale said that shows such as Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, The Bodyguard and Planet Earth were huge international hits that also reflected Britain and British values.

Mr Whittingdale said that under the new rules the types of programmes that PSBs are required to produce and air would be expanded to include “distinctively British” content. In Mr Whittingdale’s view, the move will ensure that the UK continues to be “a creative powerhouse” for unique, high-quality TV shows that “showcase British culture and are enjoyed the world over”.

The Media Minister also announced new plans to legislate to ensure that 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 turn to them over traditional TV.

Proposals for these measures will be included in a Broadcasting White Paper to be published this autumn.

PSBs currently have requirements in their remits to broadcast “original” content, which was previously considered sufficient to ensure their programming had a characteristically British dimension. However, according to the Government, 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. The Government believes that this risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for UK audiences, as well as minimising its proven soft power abroad.

The Government is therefore considering expanding 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.

In his speech Mr Whittingdale said: “Global investment is extremely welcome – but I want to make sure it doesn’t water down British creativity or the British brand. Public service broadcasters have a unique role and I want them to continue producing shows that allow people in every corner of the UK to see their lives reflected on screen, and that showcase the things we are most proud of to the rest of the world. To make programmes that are iconic, not generic. So in our upcoming White Paper, I intend to include proposals that will expand the remit of public service broadcasters, so that it includes a requirement for them to produce “distinctively British” content. If it’s set in Britain and made in Britain by our public service broadcasters, then it should be distinctively British.”

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, such as Emma Raducanu’s stunning US Open victory.

As for PSB prominence on digital platforms, the current 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. The Government plans to update the rules 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.

Further, 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 believes 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 that they value in years to come on whichever platform they choose to watch it. To read the Government’s press release in full and for a link to Mr Whittingdale’s speech, click here.