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UK to regulate streaming giants in media shake-up

·3-min read

The British government on Wednesday announced plans to subject online streaming platforms to tighter regulation as part of a wider shake-up of the country's media landscape.

Under the proposals, services such as Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video would face the same level of regulation as traditional broadcasters including the BBC, ITV and Sky.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said the review would "level the playing field between broadcasters and video-on-demand services".

Television channels in Britain must follow a broadcasting code set by regulator the Office of Communications (Ofcom) covering areas such as harmful content and requiring impartiality in news programmes.

But online streaming platforms -- with the exception of the BBC's on-demand iPlayer service -- face lighter regulation, primarily limited to protecting children and preventing content that incites hatred.

Netflix and Apple TV+ are not regulated at all in Britain.

The reforms also aim to increase public service broadcasters' online prominence to ensure their programmes can be found and accessed easily on smart TVs and other devices.

"Technology has transformed broadcasting but the rules protecting viewers and helping our traditional channels compete are from an analogue age," Dowden added.

"The time has come to look at how we can unleash the potential of our public service broadcasters while making sure viewers and listeners consuming content on new formats are served by a fair and well-functioning system."

- 'Politically motivated' -

The government also revealed it intends to sell Channel 4, a publicly-owned but commercially-funded television broadcaster that draws 90 percent of its income from advertising.

Channel 4 launched in 1982 and its remit involves supporting Britain's independent production sector and producing a unique and diverse range of programmes.

The UK government said privatisation would enable Channel 4 to diversify its revenue sources, reach international markets and invest in new content and technology to respond to competition from subscription-based streaming services.

It pointed to ITV and Channel 5 as examples of successful public service broadcasters operating under private ownership.

Critics claim the decision is politically motivated as politicians from Britain's ruling Conservative party have accused the broadcaster of bias.

In 2019, Channel 4's head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne branded Prime Minister Boris Johnson a "liar" and a "coward".

He now rarely gives interviews to the broadcaster, although he relented at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall, where he was grilled -- uncomfortably -- on his Brexit commitments.

EU leaders "say you don't keep your word... They think you'll rip up the agreements that you've signed," the Channel 4 News interviewers suggested to Johnson.

Chief executive Alex Mahon on Tuesday defended Channel 4's public ownership model to a committee of MPs, saying it "put public service before profit" through its remit of "speaking up for the unheard and appealing to diverse audiences".

She added the broadcaster -- known for its often edgy, alternative content -- was "thriving" despite the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Its young audience numbers and trust ratings grew after the first lockdown in March 2020, she added.

Johnson's government also has the BBC in its sights, with questions over its compulsory annual licence fee funding model in the face of competition from streaming services.