Insights Ofcom issues call for evidence on the future of TV distribution


In the introduction to the Call for Evidence, Ofcom sets out background and context. Currently, TV programmes are available for everyone to watch for free (free-to-view). The switchover from terrestrial TV to digital led to a massive increase in the number of channels and a variety of ways in which TV can be viewed, such as by satellite (freesat), cable or via internet streaming services. Digital terrestrial TV (“DTT”) has been the most popular way to receive TV in the UK since the digital switchover. Also known as Freeview, it sends TV content to premises over radio spectrum via an aerial.

Some stakeholders have suggested that the government and industry should migrate customers away from DTT towards internet distribution while others argue DTT should continue even beyond 2034 when the current radio spectrum licences expire. Any changes to TV distribution could be relevant for Ofcom’s statutory duties such as in relation to broadcast standards, the regulation and licensing of public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and S4C) (“PSBs”) and the promotion of high-quality broadband. Consequently, an examination of how TV distribution might evolve in future is needed. In September 2023, the government announced a new programme of work on the future of TV distribution to include a Call for Evidence to inform government’s early review.

Ofcom invites evidence on the factors that may affect audiences and market outcomes to 2034 and beyond and sets out and explains what is considers to be the key factors for consideration.

Although there is a move to watching more content on demand when it suits viewers rather than when it is scheduled (either for free through apps like BBC iPlayer or via ad-funded or subscription services like Netflix), many people continue to watch scheduled TV and some continue to rely on DTT TV such as older audiences or those with disabilities, on lower incomes or in rural areas. Current trends show that millions of households will use DTT well into the 2030s even if they also watch via the internet and some would likely not choose to adopt or be capable of adopting internet-delivered services.

In light of the fact that, with DTT and freesat, almost everyone in the UK can currently access free-to-view TV if they want (underpinned for example by guaranteed access to radio spectrum by the PSBs), Ofcom states that any significant change in free-to-view distribution is unlikely in the near term. However, broadcasters are currently investing in internet-based content delivery to meet changing audience expectations and have indicated that there may come a point when DTT channels may no longer be commercially viable. Whilst Ofcom acknowledges that internet-based distribution is very competitive, requires investment, and that such decisions are not taken lightly, a key factor for Ofcom is that any investment decisions made now could influence the viability of free-to view TV platforms in the long term. Ofcom therefore invites evidence on what audience trends mean for the financial prospects and sustainability of TV distribution platforms.

Other key factors include consideration of consumers who choose not to take up broadband services at all or who cannot afford broadband packages which offers the speeds needed to support reliable peak-time TV viewing. Broadband has more potential points of failure (e.g. strength of consumer’s Wi-Fi) than DTT which is a highly reliable technology, with significant resilience to power and other failures. Finally, Ofcom also questions whether the proliferation of content and providers has made the user experience more complicated to navigate or whether it provides an opportunity for creative approaches to user experience such as personalisation, what implications arise from the fact that TV distribution networks are also used to deliver other services (e.g. DTT masts are used to broadcast radio and cable and satellite systems are used to deliver broadband) and whether DTT could use different technology to enable it to use less spectrum.

For more information, and to access the response form, click here. The Call for Evidence closes on 12 December 2023.