UK Broadcasters Want the Government to Force Streaming Services to Prioritise Their Content

By Tom Pritchard on at

If you have a subscription to a TV service like Sky, Virgin, or whatever else, chances are you will have noticed that all the old 'terrestrial' TV channels are always first - no matter what service you actually subscribe to. That's because the government says they have to, and now those same broadcasters are arguing that the same should be true of all these fancy new streaming services we've taken a liking to.

The BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and S4C have written an open letter to the government regarding this, which was then published in the Guardian. I assume they also sent a copy or two to the relevant members of government, because I'm pretty sure the high-level Tories don't really make a habit of reading newspapers that aren't The Daily Telegraph.

The argument is that big tech companies don't give a damn about UK culture and the content we produce as a result, so they want British-made programming to receive top billing on streaming platforms to make sure subscribers can always get their hands on local content without having to scroll through a million different menus. Menus that definitely weren't there last time, while all you want to do is find the always-moving 'Continue Watching' section to carry on watching Star Trek.

“There is a global commercial battle going on to shape and influence what we watch, listen to or buy in our homes. Global technology players have growing influence on what UK audiences discover when they turn on their screens.

Increasingly they are becoming the gatekeepers to what we watch, but they have little interest in supporting and reflecting UK culture, in ensuring the news they supply is accurate and impartial or in distributing their operations across the UK. In fact, they  have every incentive to promote their own programmes and those of their commercial partners with deals done globally and implemented in the same way country by country. And this promotion matters: more than 80% of the TV shows people watch on Netflix are reportedly discovered through its recommendation system. The Netflix button on the remote control is another reminder of how much the market has already changed – the company is able to use its deep pockets to effectively buy prominence.”

But we now live in a world where people don' t really care about listings, and all they want is a list of content that a computer has handpicked based on all the information it's picked up when it was spying on their viewing history. That said the letter does have a point. Streaming services are far more interested in promoting their own content, especially since they know it's always going to be there.

Ofcom has offered some support to this idea, though noted that it would require some sort of legislation to accomplish:

“To ensure public service channels are easy to find on TV delivered through the internet, parliament would need to introduce new legislation. We would support that, and we recently set out some ideas and sought views on how it might be achieved.”

Meanwhile the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said the government was “committed to working with PSBs and the sector to ensure our world-class TV industry continues to thrive”.

Would it be so difficult to accomplish, though? Netflix already has various sections for UK content, and it should just be a case of stickying it to the top of the service's listings. That doesn't prevent it from then adding Netflix Originals and personalised recommendations below it. It shouldn't be that different for the rest to followsuit. Plus, the EU has mandated that streaming services have to stick to quotas of EU-produced content - while also making sure it gets some sort of promotion. If the content is there, and has to be promoted in some prominent way, this is one way to get around that.

We'll just have to wait and see. In the meantime cue someone in the comments somehow turning this into an argument about TV licensing. [The Guardian]