UK government consults on audience protection standards on video on demand services

August 31, 2021

The government has launched a consultation on how to better level the regulatory playing field between mainstream VoD services and traditional broadcasters. This could mean aligning the content standards rules for on-demand TV services with those for traditional linear TV like BBC 1 and Sky. It says that the UK’s laws can now go beyond the minimum standards provided by the revised Audiovisual Media Services Directive.

According to Ofcom data, there has been huge growth in popularity and use of on-demand services in the UK. The number of households subscribing to a service increased by almost 350% between 2014 and 2020. In 2021, 75% per cent of UK households have reportedly used a subscription VoD service. However, services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ are not regulated in the UK to the same extent as UK linear TV channels.

For example, except for BBC iPlayer, they are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code which sets out appropriate standards for content including harmful or offensive material, accuracy, fairness and privacy. This means there is a gap between existing protections for audiences watching traditional TV and those watching newer VoD services. There are some protections for under-18s but minimal rules exist to regulate content. There are very few rules to protect audiences, for example, from misleading health advice or pseudoscience documentaries.

The government highlights that some service providers have taken steps to introduce their own standards and procedures for audience protection – such as pin-codes and content warnings – but the extent of these measures varies across services. Age ratings are also inconsistent and sometimes non-existent.

In summary, the government is consulting on whether:

  • UK audiences viewing TV-like VoD programme content should receive the same or similar level of protections as if they were watching traditional television; and
  • VoD services not currently regulated by Ofcom and which target UK audiences should be brought within UK jurisdiction.

Not all VoD providers deliver a TV-like experience, so any regulatory change will need to be proportionate, particularly for smaller or niche services, to ensure essential protections like freedom of speech are not affected.

The consultation neither seeks responses on wider broadcasting regulation, nor changes to how television or public service broadcasters such as the BBC or Channel 4 are funded or regulated. The consultation will also not cover changes to advertising rules/restrictions and does not cover topics such as introducing levies/quotas on VoD services. It ends on 26 October 2021.