Regulating video-on-demand in the UK

A draft paper, ‘Journeyman to five-tool player? Co-regulation and audiovisual media in the UK link to PDF), is available on the website of the ECPR Standing Group on Regulatory Governance.The paper was prepared for the Group’s third biennial conference at UCD in Dublin; the conference took place this weekend, but unfortunately I was unable to attend in person to deliver my paper.

I’ll provide some links to some other papers from those made available on the Internet in a later most.  My own paper is an early draft, with some further work needed, so I’d welcome your comments, but don’t rely on it as a complete statement of the law.  

I’ll update this post with a link to a final version when it’s available.  The abstract is below.

Media regulation in the UK has traditionally seen a division between State regulation (in the case of broadcasting) and self-regulation (in the case of newspapers), both of course subject to laws of general application. However, co-regulation has emerged as a significant feature of contemporary regulation of the media. With official support and encouragement from UK and EU legislation, and political and regulatory commitment to the ʻlight touchʼ, the new system for the regulation of ʻvideo-on-demandʼ (VOD) as an aspect of the transposition of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD) illustrates this. This paper considers the various stages of consultation and implementation in the responsible Department, the regulatory agency Ofcom, and the designated body ATVOD, informed by the representations made by various affected parties. It is argued that audiovisual media in the UK can now be regulated by a number of bodies, with an argument being made for a new approach to categorising and analysing the relevant statutory provisions and regulatory arrangements.

The model of co-regulation for VOD is considered alongside broader ideas of the appropriate methods for regulation, technological and organisational developments in the media industries, and the impact on closely related issues such as community media and the film industry. It is argued that the AVMSD did not resolve all issues in relation to the scope of regulation and that even the most recent developments in the launch of co-regulation illustrate the issues in relation to on-demand services that remain unresolved.

Monday morning: product placement and video-on-demand

Two developments (not coordinated, it seems, just one of those things) that may interest regular readers, both relating to the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) directive within the UK. The first is the one that’s getting all the publicity, and hasn’t actually happened yet. That’s the rumoured change of view, as widely reported (e.g. in the Guardian), by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport that the UK will allow certain forms of product placement on television.* The Directive allows member states to provide for PP (which the predecessor Television Without Frontiers directive did not), but does not require it. Earlier indications, after a 2008 consultation process, were that the UK would decline to take up this option (see for example the Ministerial Statement of 11 March 2009, published in Hansard volume 489 column 15WS), but it is now expected that the Minister, Ben Bradshaw, will announce his view that he favours permitting it, presumably launching a further round of consultation. Interestingly, broadcasters are divided on this, it seems: ITV likes the idea, Channel 4 doesn’t.

In March, the (former) Minister said:

On balance, and mindful of the need to maintain public trust in television broadcasters and British television’s reputation for high standards, the Government have concluded that no conclusive evidence has been put forward that the economic benefit of introducing product placement is sufficient to outweigh the detrimental impact it would have on the quality and standards of British television and viewers’ trust in it.

What’s the bets that the ‘current economic situation’ is going to be the reason for the change of heart?

Anyway, another matter dealt with in the March statement was video-on-demand. The AVMS directive requires the regulation of certain types of VOD by member states. In March, the conclusion was that:

Ofcom will be given powers to regulate UK video-on-demand services so that Ofcom can then designate, and delegate powers to, an industry-led co-regulatory body to regulate programme content in these services. These arrangements will ensure that UK video-on-demand services maintain, as a minimum, the standards and requirements set out in the Directive. All UK providers will need to notify the co-regulator that they are providing a video-on-demand service.

On this, then, Ofcom has today launched its consultation on the details of such, with a six-week response time, so get writing! Download the document and supporting information here. There are three major features here. Two of them are the review of the evolving proposals for co-regulation – the existing self-regulatory ATVOD for content and the long-established ASA for advertising. The ASA is already the self-regulatory body for print advertising and the co-regulatory body for broadcast, and it’s proposed that it would have a co-regulatory role for VOD. The third, and probably most important, is the definition and procedures of the services that will be regulated. The actual level of regulation is quite low – one of the things that AVMS does is create a limited but EU-wide system for regulating on-demand services – but it will still be important for the industries concerned as well as the wider public to know who is and isn’t included. As expected, the approach is going to be one of notification rather than licensing, so the system for this is discussed too. It’s going to take me longer to get through all of this, but there are some fascinating ‘worked examples’ based on actual TV services included in the consultation: an unusual approach, indeed.

Tomorrow, I’m at a Westminster e-Forum seminar on the regulation of video-on-demand. I’m not sure what the rules are going to be on blogging and the like, but I’ll see what I can do.

* the definition of television changes under AVMS: more on this another time.