13 Broadcasting: Broadcasting Act 1990

broadcasting-since-1990.doc  (Word version – easier for printing)

Broadcasting Since 1990 You need to consider two strands:

  1. The legislative framework

         Broadcasting Act 1990         Broadcasting Act 1996         Communications Act 2003 

  1. General Patterns and trends, not just in terms of TV institutions but also audience behaviour etc.

What was the background to the Broadcasting Act 1990? The motivations behind the Government’s intervention in broadcasting could be summarised as follows:

  1. Pressure from the advertising industry for new broadcast outlets.
  2. The BBC had requested a 41% increase in the licence fee and philosophically the government was against the anti-competitive nature of the BBC. Why should it continue to benefit from the licence fee?
  3. Thatcher’s government were committed to principles of privatisation/deregulation/free market and the BBC sat uncomfortably with these principles. There should be less Government interference in industry.
  4. There had been conflict between the Government and the BBC over programming on politically sensitive subjects (notably
    Northern Ireland).

What did the Government do?It commissioned a report from Professor Alan Peacock. Ostensibly this was supposed to consider the funding of BBC television services, and the Government may have been hopeful that he would recommend the abolition of the licence fee and the introduction of advertising on the BBC.  What did the Peacock Report 1986 recommend?It did not propose advertising on the BBC and in fact its recommendations did not focus exclusively on the BBC.Many of its proposals influenced the subsequent reshaping of the financial, organisational and regulatory structures of commercial broadcasting. Many of its recommendations made their way into the Broadcasting Act 1990. What was the Broadcasting Act 1990 supposed to be about?The guiding principle was that deregulation would stimulate competition, increase efficiency and widen consumer choice. The aim of the Act was to reform the entire structure of British Broadcasting; British Television, in particular, had earlier been described by Margaret Thatcher as “the last bastion of restrictive practices“. How did the Broadcasting Act 1990 change the broadcasting landscape?  The Broadcasting Act can be interpreted in a number of different ways. It has been heralded as a milestone in the ‘commercialisation’ of television, while on the other hand it has been challenged as an example of re-regulation rather than de-regulation. 1. Put things on a more commercial footing? Setting broadcasting down the road to de-regulation?         encouraging commercial enterprise?         encouraging competition?         expanding choice? 

  • The regional ITV licences and the breakfast-time licence to be re-auctioned to the highest bidder. The dominant principle here was that the ‘highest bidder wins’ with the government favouring the ideas that ‘cash’ is a more transparent and measurable criterion than ‘quality’. Previously the award of franchises had been based on a programme and talent ‘beauty contest’. Significantly, however,  there was a ‘quality threshold’ that the bids must pass. The ITC could ‘exceptionally’ award a franchise to a lower bidder if its quality promise seems to exceed that of the highest bidder.
  • The ITC was empowered to auction for a new fifth channel (Channel 5)
  • The Radio Authority would ensure more commercial stations at local and regional level. Three new national commercial radio licences (won eventually by Classic Fm, Virgin 1215 and Talk Radio)and many more local radio stations.
  • To ‘free up the system’, encourage efficiency and competition, the BBC and ITV were required to acquire at least 25% of their programme output from independent producers
  • Channel 4 to sell its own advertising. Previously ITV had done this ‘on behalf of’ Channel 4. This change broke the ITV network’s near monopoly on advertising.
  • ITN (Independent Television News) would be exposed to greater competition, for it was obliged under the Act to change from a supported service to a profit-making business.
  • Introduction of programme sponsorship.

But was it really all about commercialisation and freeing up the market?

  • Neither the BBC or Channel 4 was to be privatized but would remain in public ownership.
  • The requirement that bids for ITV licences should cross a ‘quality threshold’ is an example of intervention in the processes of the market and goes against the principle of the ‘highest bid wins’ and the idea. The ITC rejected the highest bidder in the second auction for the new fifth channel.

Re-regulation rather than de-regulation? The IBA was split into two separate organisations:Radio AuthorityIndependent Television Commission (ITC)– the main roles for these organisations was to issue licences and regulate broadcast content. De-regulation in the Act:

  • Previously the IBA could act against a broadcaster before a programme or advert was broadcast. Now the ITC and Radio Authority could only act after broadcast.
  • Commercial broadcasters to become responsible in law for their own programme output (previously, the ultimate responsibility for this lay with the IBA, which in law was the ‘publisher’ of the output of the television and radio stations it regulated).

Re-regulation in the Act:

  • The ITC had considerable powers in what they could require of broadcasters. They set ‘positive programme requirements’, that is, detailed information about the range and amounts of programming that the broadcaster had to transmit in each genre. If broadcasters failed to abide by the codes covering programme and advertising content, the regulators were able to impose a number of sanctions
  • The ITC also began regulating non-terrestrial channels.
  • The Act gave statutory  role to the  new broadcast regulator, the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC)

o       the BSC was required to draw up its own code on the portrayal of sex and violence and taste and decency, to monitor their portrayal on television and radio, and investigate complaints about them from the public.o       However, BSC not empowered to act against a broadcaster without first receiving a complaint and although it could require television or radio stations to broadcast its findings, it could not impose sanctions on them.

  • The Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) (with a remit to investigate complaints from individuals or groups about unfair treatment or breaches of privacy in a programme) stayed in place.

Was the situation different for radio?

  • For radio, the situation was different, since the Act did not require commercial radio stations to meet public service requirements as the IBA had done. It could be argued therefore that radio was subject to a greater degree of de-regulation than television.
  • However, there still was provision for regulation. The Radio Authority did impost a ‘promise of performance/format’. If radio broadcasters failed to meet this standard they could be fined or in extreme circumstances subject to a shortening or revocation of their licence.

Why was the Act not as far-reaching and as ground-breaking as the Government had (perhaps?) initially intended? Despite its ideological commitment to less state interference in industry and to privatisation, deregulation and competition, the government was loath to leave broadcasters to their own devices. This was partly because it believed that broadcasting exerted a stronger political influence on the public than the press did, and it was more than once vexed by television documentaries which criticized aspects of its performance. How can we sum up the Broadcasting Act’s impact?

  • It didn’t deliver privatization.
  • There’s a question mark over how much it actually deregulated the industry.
  • It did generate more commercial pressure and competition.
  • It did encourage more independent production of programmes.

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