Digital Economy Bill - Committee (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 8th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Wood of Anfield Lord Wood of Anfield Labour 6:30 pm, 8th February 2017

Once again, I am pretending to be my noble friend Lord Stevenson. Amendment 226A concerns rules ensuring the prominence of public service broadcasting content on on-demand services.

The Communications Act 2003 provides a code of practice to ensure electronic programme guides give priority and prominence to PSB channels. For traditional viewing these rules, in the main, continue to work pretty well. But the Act was passed 14 years ago, before the age of digital switchover, the iPlayer, the iPad, a range of catch-up services and connected TV. Recent data show that 70% of adults in the UK say they have watched programmes via catch-up services. About 15% of total programme viewing is now, to use the horrible jargon, time shifted—more than double the amount from 2010. Yet, at the moment, on-demand menus and connected TV homepages that are portals for TV guides are not within the scope of prominence rules, so there is a pressing need for the rules around PSB prominence to be updated to keep up with new technology. In addition, new services with significant PSB content, such as the new BBC iPlayer Kids, are also out of scope of these rules.

A good example of PSB programming that suffers from the absence of prominence rules for catch-up and on-demand menus is Welsh and Scottish Gaelic language services. With connected TV services it can take a very long time even to find these programmes. More generally, if you have Sky, as I do, and press the programmes button, you will see the programme guide in the top left corner, but in the bottom half of the screen—more than twice the size—you will see a “top picks” box tempting you to delve in. In my experience, you would struggle to find any PSB content in that box. PSBs continue to try to negotiate prominence for their output, but they are increasingly finding themselves outbid and outthought by commercial broadcasters that pay for promotion of their own services.

Guaranteeing the prominence of PSB in this new age is in the interest of licence fee payers, who after all pay for PSB and are therefore entitled to ensure it is accessible across platforms and viewing habits. It is also popular: 70% of the public continue to want BBC channels at the top of their listings. Ten time as many viewers want the TV guide at the top of their screen, rather than platform operators’ recommendations, to be prominent.

Both Ofcom and this House’s Communications Committee recommended updating the prominence rules by extending them to on-demand services and online menus. The TV licencing laws were updated to cover BBC on-demand services. The amendment would do the parallel work for PSB prominence rules. In addition, we have a specific reference to strengthen the rules around prominence on programme guides for PSB children’s content. I know that we will discuss quality TV children’s programming later, but, for example, at the moment CBeebies and CBBC—the most trusted children’s channels, whose content is funded by us all—sit behind 12 US network cartoon channels on the Sky platform.

Surely the Government would agree with Ofcom and this House’s Communications Committee that the rules guaranteeing PSB prominence need to be updated. We should not tolerate a situation in which people are paying for PSB content but, as viewing habits change, it is getting harder and harder to find it. I looking forward to hearing from the Minister whether he agrees that there are gaps in the existing rules and what steps he would recommend to fill them. I beg to move.