Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has the power to block the renewal of the broadcast licences of ITV, STV and Channel 5, regardless of Ofcom’s recommendation.
The broadcast regulator says all three broadcasters have a good track record of delivering their public service broadcasting obligations. Therefore, once the current licences expire at the end of 2024, Ofcom’s preference is to renew current licences for another ten years.
In return for committing to quotas relating to news and current affairs, regional news (ITV/STV only) or children’s programmes, all three broadcasters get various perks.
These include a guaranteed prominent slot on Electronic Programme Guides (channel 3 or 5 or 103/105). The Government also intends to give their streaming services similar prominence. All channels are allocated high-coverage slots on Freeview, with 98.5% UK coverage.
- The current licence obligations are the minimum contributions to PSB that we expect for audiences, and Channel 3 and Channel 5 have a good track record in delivering them.
- Over and above the specific licence obligations, Channel 3 and Channel 5 licensees contribute more broadly to the PSB purposes and objectives, for instance by investing in a wide range of original UK content that meets the needs and interests of different audiences. Our research shows that the channels continue to be valued by audiences.
- The current obligations could be commercially sustainable, such that the licensees can continue to deliver them over the next licence period. This position would be strengthened by implementation of the Government’s proposed legislative reforms to establish new prominence and availability rules for PSB online TV services.
What can the Culture Secretary do?
- Upon receipt of this report, the Culture Secretary may make an order that the licences (either all of them or a specific one) are not to be renewed. Any such order must be made no later than 30th June 2023 and would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure.
- Alternatively, the Culture Secretary may decide not to intervene so as to allow Ofcom to proceed with the relicensing process set out in the Act. Accordingly, it would be for Ofcom to decide whether to grant any renewal applications submitted by existing licence holders.
- Or, the Culture Secretary is able to exercise their order-making powers. Among other things, these powers enable the Secretary of State to amend the public service remit of the Channel 3 and Channel 5 licences, to remove or suspend the inclusion of any licence condition, to amend the independent production quotas included in the licences and to amend the specification of original productions for the purposes of the original productions quota in the licences.
How remits and quotas could change
The Culture Secretary could, for example, water down the public service remit of either broadcaster. For example, the number of hours dedicated to regional news could be cut. Or other quotas could be amended.
Current programme obligations that apply to the main channel only could be widened out to cover offshoot channels and streaming services. For example, instead of insisting that the entire quota of current affairs programming is used up on the main ITV channel, the Culture Secretary could allow some shows to go online only and still count towards the quota. This scenario would be in line with the thinking in the recent Government White Paper on broadcasting.
UTV in Northern Ireland is now owned by ITV. For the purposes of this article, the channel is included under the banner of ‘ITV’.