September 28, 2023
Public service broadcaster (“PSB”) and non PSB channels are subject to advertising rules set out in Ofcom’s Code on Scheduling of TV Advertising (“COSTA”). These rules provide, amongst other things, that PSB channels may transmit an average of 7 minutes of advertising per hour across their broadcasting day but, between 18:00 and 23:00, PSB channels can transmit an average of 8 minutes of advertising per hour. The rules also address the duration of advertising breaks and the number of permitted advertising breaks per programme. Similar rules are imposed for non PSB channels but they are less strict.
Although it varies for each channel, PSB channels tend to broadcast the maximum of the 40 minutes allowed between 18:00 and 23:00, usually with more advertising around popular programmes in the 20:00 and 21:00 slots balanced by fewer or no advertisements during the 18:00, 19:00 and 22:00 slots which typically contain news programmes. If PSBs were subject to the same rules as non PSB channels, they would be allowed an extra 20 minutes of advertising during 18:00 and 23:00.
Ofcom published a consultation in April 2023 on its view that the stricter rules for PSBs in COSTA were no longer justified or a proportionate means to secure the quality of viewing on PSB channels, given the move by audiences from primarily watching TV on linear channels to watching on advertising-supported and subscription services delivered by broadcast and online. Their view was that relaxing or removing the restrictions could benefit PSBs without significantly affecting the range of services available to viewers or materially affecting audience perceptions of quality.
Ofcom has now published its conclusions. Relaxing the rules in COSTA for PSBs would likely mean increased advertising and, consequently, fewer minutes of news in peak periods. Ofcom acknowledges that news is a particularly important genre of PSB content, providing high social value. Audience responses to the consultation emphasised the importance of PSB news in providing trusted and impartial news and current affairs, particularly to counter the prevalence of false and misleading information online. Whilst the potential benefits of removing or relaxing the rules could bring benefits such as increased advertising revenue to PSBs which could be invested in content, Ofcom recognises that such benefits remain uncertain. Audience responses to the consultation indicated that they would only tolerate more advertising if it could be certain that the additional advertising revenue would be invested in content.
With the number of uncertainties and unknown factors pointed out by respondents to the consultations, and the likely reduction in news minutes, Ofcom has taken the decision not the change the rules at this time. While it continues to believe that the current rules deliver limited benefits, it has concluded that it would be better placed to consider whether the current rules remain justified or proportionate when it can better take account of the impact of doing so on the wider future development of the PSB system. The right time to do this is alongside Ofcom’s consideration of other changes to the PSB system over the coming years, including those following the implementation of the Media Bill.