It was only a matter of time before Ofcom decided to weigh in on streaming services, and very soon standardised regulations for the likes of Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime Video will be proposed by the UK government.
But what does this mean for streaming companies and the content which they produce for global audiences? So far, the intricacies of the regulations are mostly under wraps – but we do know some things.
The government believes that there’s a disconnect between broadcast TV and streaming platforms, which have “deep pockets and go largely unregulated, leaving them free to impose their interpretation of British life.”
Full details are set to be laid out in a white paper by of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which will be published in the next few months.
It seems that the trigger to push this forward came after Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden complained that monarchy drama The Crown should have a notice at the start to clarify that the show is a piece of fiction and not reflective of actual events in the Royal Family.
Netflix released an official statement on the matter, which was first reported in the Mail Online: “We have always presented The Crown as a drama - and we have every confidence our members understand it's a work of fiction that's broadly based on historical events.”
But just what would Ofcom do if it did have a say in streaming services, and more importantly, is it even possible for this shake-up in broadcasting law to fully go ahead?
Ofcom regulates day-to-day communications in the UK, including TV, internet, phone lines and radio. In the context of streaming services, they’re an independent body who ensure that "viewers and listeners are protected from harmful or offensive material on TV, radio and on-demand", according to the official website.
Viewers can file complaints to Ofcom, which can result in sanctions which include fines, content not being shown again, disclaimers being added to shows and even giving the body the power to revoke or shorten licenses.
In response the BBC has not repeated the footage - originally syndicated from a UEFA broadcast - or shared any images on its social channels. However, a possible investigation remains pending.
Considering the audience share that streaming services have in comparison to broadcast TV, it’s no wonder that there are arguments to put them on a more level playing field. The FT reports that an Ofcom study showed that in 2020, sign-ups for streaming platforms rose by 12 million and viewing time doubled.
In comparison, broadcast TV fell sharply – especially when COVID restrictions first eased in June 2020. Of course, the absence of live sport and other popular reality shows such as Love Island will have played a part in this – it will be interesting to see how the 2021 report shapes up.
Nonetheless, long gone are the days in which the BBC and ITV’s biggest rivals are each other. Netflix, Disney and Amazon all pose bigger threats to UK broadcasters.
The request also ties in with another government demand: for big VOD companies to share viewing figures for shows which originated on British telly such as Fleabag or The Great British Bake Off (via Deadline).
If UK TV makes up a good portion of the content on streaming services, then the argument is that all programmes should be put under the same microscope. These regulations will help standardise content across the country. At least, in theory.
Currently, not all streaming services operate under Ofcom guidelines. Netflix’s European headquarters is in The Netherlands, so currently it only abides by the Dutch regulators - Commissariaat voor de Media. If Ofcom is to also have a say in what content is produced, there may be clashes between the different international bodies.
Those which have HQs in the UK do fall under different laws – but these are not the same standards that the likes of the BBC and ITV face. Radio Times reported that whilst Jeremy Clarkson was told that he’d received complaints for The Grand Tour, he was never informed by Amazon about it, and only found out via the tabloids.
The problem is that most streaming services serve global audiences. Therefore, if Ofcom is to regulate programmes on these platforms, the changes made could mean that UK viewers get different experiences to those in other countries.
Possible scenarios include disclaimers on shows, age ratings decided by Ofcom, delays in content being released on UK versions of streaming platforms when changes need to be made, and in the most extreme case, shows being omitted for UK audiences entirely.
City AM reports that Ofcom’s rules on accuracy and impartiality could also clash with sensationalised Netflix documentaries such as Seaspiracy.
Whilst the Ofcom law mainly applies to news and current affairs, misleading claims and quotes taken out of context about global issues such as the environment could fall under that remit – and as such there could be action taken against programmes such as this.
Netflix has removed content in the past (via iNews), after other international bodies complained that some shows included promotion of conspiracy theories and false medical claims.
However, there are factors that could stop this regulation having a significant impact. For one, streaming content is not broadcast live, so already there is a lot more control over how content is curated for audiences at home. This also means that Ofcom’s ‘no repeat’ sanction doesn't really apply.
Stephen Armstrong of The Telegraph believes that Ofcom overseeing streaming companies is a pointless exercise. He argues that the fines are insignificant compared to budgets at the likes of Netflix and will not really add any weight or impact on creative decisions made to shows on these platforms.
Armstrong also argues that these plans could be a way of forcing more UK studios and broadcasters into deals with streaming services. If a programme has already been created for UK TV, then Netflix won’t need to worry about editing it for UK audiences.
It remains to be seen just how the UK government plans to enforce any penalties on streaming platforms, and whether these proposed plans will go ahead into law. If they do, then this could be a big shake-up for the UK.
Of course, if in the most drastic scenario some programmes do get taken away, there are always VPNs.
What I’m watching this week
I’m a little late to the Mike Schur sitcom hype train, but I’ve found my newest comedy binge with Parks and Recreation – all the seasons are currently on Netflix in the UK, and NBC streaming service Peacock in the US.
Amy Poehler stars as Leslie Knope, a government employee in the Parks department of Pawnee, Indiana. She has big dreams to help transform and improve her hometown – but first she has to get through all the government red tape and nosy citizens, with the help of her misfit colleagues.