MPs have called on ministers to strengthen proposals to ensure the continued prominence of public service broadcasters (PSBs) on smart TVs and streaming devices.
PSBs – the BBC, ITV, STV, UTV, S4C, Channel 4 and Channel 5 – have long been guaranteed high profile slots on Electronic Programme Guides (EPGs), a benefit which helps them retain large audiences among viewers using TVs and Freeview, Sky and Virgin Media set top boxes.
In their role as developers and funders of the Freeview Play, YouView and Freesat platforms, the PSBs were also able to shape policies which guaranteed top slots for their own catch-up services.
However, the growing adoption of streaming devices and the rise in new free and subscription streaming services means users are now free to choose their own apps and place them in whatever order they want.
In addition, the makers of two of the most popular streaming devices – Amazon and Apple – operate their own streaming services which are heavily promoted on their devices.
After extensive lobbying by some PSBs, the government included measures in its draft Media Bill to ensure services such as the iPlayer and ITVX are guaranteed an “appropriate” high profile on streaming devices and Smart TVs.
Under the proposals, it would be for media regulator Ofcom to decide what counts as “appropriate”.
In a report published today, MPs on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee call for a change in language from “appropriate” to “significant” – a tweak they say better ensures PSB content “is always carried and easy to find”.
During Committee hearings into the Bill, both Sky and ITV questioned the need for any change.
Sky cited how adopting “significant” could force it and other platform operators to override audience preferences, giving the example of how users searching for a specific show might find it placed below content from the PSBs in the search results.
However other PSBs, including S4C, backed the change of language when appearing before the committee.
In addition to providing guarantees that their content will be easy to find, the new Bill also places obligations on PSBs to offer their services to Smart TV and streaming devices while the manufacturers will also have an obligation to carry them.
During their hearings MPs heard from Netgem – which powers TV services for a growing number of fibre broadband providers – how broadcasters had refused to allow it to offer streamed versions of their channels.
This refusal, the firm said, “meant that those of Netgem’s users without an aerial socket could only access PSBs by switching to a different platform.”
Under the Bill’s provisions PSBs would have to make their content available, subject to the agreement of fair terms with device makers, with Ofcom able to step in if negotiations broke down.
While the prominence provisions will help the broadcasters shore-up market share in the immediate term, their catch-up apps continue to lack features offered by dedicated streaming services.
The BBC’s iPlayer is the only PSB service which offers shows in Ultra High Definition, however the broadcaster withholds this from multiple devices including Apple TV set top boxes and several of Amazon’s 4K Fire TV models.
In addition, the Channel 5 catch-up app My5 is limited to Standard Definition on most platforms, and only Channel 4’s app offers surround sound.
In contrast, services such as Prime Video and Apple TV+ default to providing the best picture and sound quality on all devices, with most new commissions offered in 4K and customers also benefitting from full surround sound and even Dolby Atmos.