Clause 10 - Power to create additional quotas for qualifying audiovisual content

Media Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 5 December 2023.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Labour, Bradford South

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendment 2.

Clauses 11 to 13 stand part.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Clause 10 inserts proposed new section 278A into the Communications Act 2003. This will establish a mechanism for the creation of additional quotas for audio-visual content that has not been made available by one or more providers of

“licensed public service channels…to the extent that is appropriate.”

That is achieved by empowering the Secretary of State in new subsection (1) to specify

“by regulations…a description of qualifying audiovisual content”.

This will include both specifying the type of content—for example, a particular type or genre—and how that content is to be delivered.

The power is essentially a backstop should there be a type of content that is neglected in the fulfilment of the public service remit, as we discussed. It will only be used as an exception rather than by rule. We believe that a modernised public service remit, deliverable across a wide range of services, will in most cases be sufficient to ensure a range of high-quality public service broadcasting. The power will ensure that the legislation is future-proofed against changes in how content is delivered—for example, by allowing the Secretary of State to require that certain content be delivered on certain services.

The bar for imposing additional quotas of this kind will be high. The more specific the proposed quota, the higher it should be. Before making a recommendation under these sections to introduce regulation, Ofcom will be required to consult members of the public, affected licensed public service channels and any other providers of television or on-demand programmed services. Any regulations made under the new section will be subject to the draft affirmative mechanism.

Clause 11 inserts proposed new section 278B into the 2003 Act, which introduces some important definitions that are relied on by other clauses. It defines “qualifying audiovisual content” and what it is to make available a “qualifying audiovisual service”. It also specifies that this must be free of charge where it has been included in an on-demand programmed service, and it must have been included, as we said, for at least 30 days. These important definitions are needed for the functioning of the Bill.

Government amendment 2 is a technical amendment to clause 11, clarifying that, where qualifying audio-visual content has been made available through services provided by persons associated with the licensed PSB, arrangements must be in place between the PSB and that person. That corrects a theoretical anomaly between section 264, as amended, and the proposed new section, which could have resulted in quota content not counting towards a PSB’s remit.

Clause 12 makes further provisions about how quotas can be fulfilled. It inserts proposed new section 278C into the 2003 Act, requiring the Secretary of State to make provision, either directly or through Ofcom, for the appropriate treatment of material that is made available by public service broadcasters multiple times. It can apply whether the repeats are on the same service, as with the traditional repeat, or across multiple services. We believe that this complex issue needs more detailed treatment. Before making any regulations in this area, the Secretary of State must consult Ofcom.

In respect of original and regional productions, and other additional quota conditions that may be determined, clause 12 allows for the treatment of repeats to be determined not by the Secretary of State but by Ofcom. Given that Ofcom is responsible for setting the level of those quotas, in our view it makes sense for it to continue to determine the treatment of repeats.

Turning to clause 13, section 285 of the 2003 Act requires that the provider of each licensed public service channel draws up a code of practice that they will apply when commissioning independent productions for that channel. Those codes of practice must be consistent with guidance issued by Ofcom, and this gives rise to a system of regulation known as the terms of trade regime. The purpose of the codes, and indeed, the terms of trade regime as a whole, is to ensure that broadcasters work fairly with independent production companies and do not take advantage of their dominant market position.

Clause 13 makes amendments to section 285 of the 2003 Act to extend the scope of the codes of practice to cover independent productions commissioned for other audio-visual services—for example, programming that is put on on-demand programme services—should the PSB wish to count those programmes as part of its independent productions quota. Subsection (3) is complementary, in mandating Ofcom to issue guidance with a view to ensuring that the PSB provides the person who is being commissioned with information about the application of the code. These essential provisions support the modernisation of our PSB system, and I commend Government amendment 2 and clauses 10 to 13 to the Committee.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:45, 5 December 2023

I will speak to each clause in this grouping in turn, starting with clause 10, which enables the Secretary of State to create additional quotas for audio-visual content by licensed public service channels. On the whole, I welcome the clause. In particular, I am pleased that changes have been made to the draft version of the Bill to ensure that the Secretary of State can make regulations only following a recommendation from Ofcom. As the Culture, Media and Sport Committee observed, no explanation was given regarding the circumstances in which it would have been necessary to use this backstop without an Ofcom recommendation. Media regulation is rightly independent from Government through Ofcom, and the adjustment will ensure that there are no concerns about a shift away from that.

On the intent of clause 10 more broadly, in theory, the new power that it provides is important. It is right that Ofcom should be able to mandate new quotas if it believes that audiences are being under-served. This is particularly true given the adjustments in clause 1 that make a number of simplifications to the remit, most notably removing explicit mention of the genres of content that must be provided, including, as we discussed, science, religious beliefs and matters of international importance. However, given that the genres have been removed, Ofcom’s ability to monitor and recognise the gaps is unclear. That creates a sort of paradox: how can Ofcom judge whether audiences are being served properly if it is no longer monitoring the genres of content needed to ensure that there is a good service for those audiences? For that reason, I tabled amendment 19, which would ensure that genres would still be explicitly mentioned in legislation so that could be monitored accordingly. Without such a measure, the clause is at risk of failing to live up to its potential as a backstop measure to ensure that audiences are protected from a fall in quality programming.

Clause 11 underpins almost all the clauses in the first section of this Bill by defining phrases such as make available and “qualifying audiovisual content”. Those phrases allow for on-demand content to count towards remit and quotas, and as such, it is important that they are properly and sensibly defined. I am happy with the definitions on the whole, and it is pleasing that there is also room for additional audio-visual services to be added to the list of qualifying audio-visual content, subject to consultation with Ofcom and the affirmative procedure. That will effectively future-proof the measures in the Bill, subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Clause 12 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations regarding whether content that is made available multiple times—more commonly known as repeats—counts towards production quotas. As I mentioned during the discussion on clauses 8, 9 and 14, some have raised concerns about how changes in this area could impact the ability of public service broadcasters to fulfil their quotas. At present, programmes that have been broadcast before in substantially the same form count towards some of the production quota. Any change, therefore, that results in repeats no longer counting towards those quotas, will mean that the quotas are harder to reach. For example, excluding repeats from counting towards quotas on original content will mean that more original content will have to be produced to meet existing obligations.

However, in the context of on-demand content, which will now count towards quotas, it is unclear how the concept of repeats could possibly be applied. Indeed, when viewing on-demand content, it is usually available 24/7 at the choice of the viewer, rather than run multiple times at the choice of the broadcaster, as is the case on linear. That brings up complex issues relating to how the contribution of repeats will be calculated as counting towards quotas in the digital age, the detail of which will need to be worked out promptly.

I therefore ask the Minister for guidance on how the Department intends to proceed in this area and use the power that the clause will give to the Secretary of State. Will repeats continue to be counted towards quotas on both linear and on-demand content, and if so, how will a repeat be defined on the on-demand service? Ultimately, it is important that the way that repeats count toward quotas and the level of new quotas are considered hand in hand. We must ensure that the quotas remain at levels that are meaningful enough to ensure quality content for audiences and encourage a healthy broadcasting ecology in the UK, while being at a reasonable level, given the economic constraints on the broadcasters.

Finally, I turn to clause 13. As I am sure we will touch on in more detail when we discuss the changes made to Channel 4’s publisher-broadcaster restriction, our public service broadcasters are crucial to the success of the wider UK TV production sector. As stated in the submission from the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, PSBs account for 77% of original UK commissions and, as a result, hold immense buyer power in the UK domestic commissioning market. Given their role and bargaining power in the sector, it is crucial that fair principles apply when public service broadcasters commission independent productions. The terms of trade regime, which was established following the Communications Act, has done a good job so far of ensuring that that is the case.

That is not to say that the landscape operates perfectly, and I know that some have raised concern over the rise of super-indies, which may make it more difficult for smaller indies to compete. Overall, however, it is welcome that the clause looks to maintain a successful supply side to the market by ensuring that the terms of trade regime will apply to any qualifying audio-visual content. That is important for the health of the sector as a whole. In particular, it has been welcomed by PACT, which has worked hard at many stages of the Bill to ensure that independent production companies are well represented and do not feel adverse effects as a result of the Bill.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed, for all these clauses, that any changes by regulation must be made using the affirmative procedure. Particularly on clause 10—a power he suggested would be used very rarely, if at all, and only if needed—it makes sense, given the level of importance attached to the power that it should have to go through the affirmative procedure to be implemented. I appreciate that the Government have chosen to do that.

It is important that additional services can be added by regulation rather than by primary legislation, particularly when there are continual updates and renewals—on digital platforms especially, we are seeing changes on a very regular basis. As I said, I was on the Online Safety Bill Committee, and it was so important to ensure that that Bill was future-proofed as far as possible. There are potentially on-demand services that we cannot conceive of or genres that currently do not exist that will be a massive part of daily life in a few short years. The Minister has ensured that there is flexibility, in concert with the Secretary of State and Ofcom, and then through the affirmative procedure in the House. I think it is sensible to future-proof the legislation by allowing regulations to be decided on using the affirmative procedure.

The same applies to the requirement of quotas for potential genres or ways that television is delivered that we cannot foresee today. I agree with the points made by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barnsley East. It is important to look at what happens with repeats and to ensure that everybody is clear about what happens. I probably do not have a firm view of how those should be judged, but I do have a firm view that everybody should understand how they are judged, and people should understand it in advance, so that they know what the expectations are of them.

A clear definition of what a repeat looks like on an on-demand service is important. If something is available for 30 consecutive days, goes away for a day and then comes back for 30 consecutive days, would that be a repeat, or would it not? Would it be included in the quota? It is important that some of the public service broadcasters that are producing this stuff can take it down so that they can sell it abroad for a period of time if they need to in order to generate some income. As long as it is on the service for a length of time here—they are required to include it for those 30 days, for example, or longer—I think it is perfectly acceptable for them to use some of the productions to gain some cash to continue to produce their excellent programmes.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

We debated earlier whether we should continue to have specified genres as part of the public service remit. As I said, the Government considered it better to specify that there should be a broad range without necessarily going through each individual category. That does not mean that Ofcom will not have the power to consider the provision of precisely the same genres as they have in the past, and those will include things such as arts and classical music, religion, sport and drama. Ofcom will also be required to produce an annual report on what it considers to be the principal genres and on whether those are being met. Some of the concerns that the hon. Member for Barnsley East identified will be met by the Bill.

The treatment of repeats is complicated, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North indicated. The Secretary of State will have the power to make regulation under the affirmative procedure, having consulted Ofcom. We cannot go into specific detail at this stage about how the power will be used, but I can say, in respect of independent productions, that the intention is that repeats should not count towards the quota, given the focus on the way in which programmes are made. But in respect of original and regional productions and other additional quota conditions that may be determined in the future, this allows for the treatment of repeats to be determined by Ofcom. Given that Ofcom will have the responsibility for setting the level of quotas, it makes sense for it to continue to determine the treatment of repeats. I hope that that provides a little more clarity, if not an absolute clear statement at this stage of how this will work.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 10 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.