A New Communications Bill is Coming in the UK
There is going to be a new Communications Bill in the UK soon. The lobbying has started.
That may be interesting outside the UK too, especially to other European countries. The UK’s regulatory system is highly regarded in Europe and the BBC is the aspiration of public broadcasters everywhere.
Just out is a paper called Creative UK, written by Robin Foster and Tom Broughton and commissioned by Channel 4, ITV, PACT and Sky.
It has a simple two-part message: the UK audiovisual sector is a “success story” in international terms; and the UK needs “an effective intellectual property regime” to realise its potential in future.
An Economic Success Story?
I do not disagree with the view that the UK is a “success story”. But our Government should examine all claims carefully as it moves towards new legislation.
The UK’s international TV trade is actually a qualified success. The UK has been good at exporting formats around the world, an explosion set off when independent producers working for public broadcasters were enabled to retain property rights in their works.
But finished content– which the industry still calls “tape sales” — makes the most money. Natural history and science are strong, but the big item in international sales is drama and we do not do so well there. Downton Abbey may be a hit in Spain — a 17.3% share on Antena 3 — , but the weakness is acknowledged: “low number of episodes per run”…”shortage of long term returning series”.
The report’s short section on future export potential relies on the argument that TV households are growing rapidly in the BRIC countries and that “China’s larger broadcasters are beginning to import formats under licence” rather than, in the words of the report, “borrowing” them.
I think we will need more than this.
There is, of course, another view, heard from Mark Thompson in his Edinburgh speech last year “…we have an industry which is mainly focused on its home market, with programme and channel brands many of which are unknown in the rest of the world. Who is the competition in these global markets? Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation. If we don’t invest and organise for success – not on the basis of one format here, one comedy script there, but as an industry – we will remain what we are today: a highly talented minnow.”
The UK’s real success story is indeed about a mixed TV economy that has, to date, served the domestic audience well and yet managed to achieve a higher international profile than any other public broadcasting system.
What of the contribution to the national economy?
This report refers tothe audiovisual sector’s “support for the wider creative industries” and then refers to their 5.6% contribution. But as the accompanying chart shows, you can cut these quite another way and end up with a rather lower figure. Perhaps even less than 1%.
Intellectual Property Rights
What of the report’s other concern? Its plea for an effective intellectual property regime?
The most obvious threat to intellectual property rights is piracy and the report cites South Korea and its super-fast broadband speeds as a case in point, where 85% of downloads are allegedly illegal, pirated films on DVD sell for 22p and the Hollywood studios have closed their domestic operations. The report would like our Government to “take a more robust approach to copyright challenges in major global markets”.
But what are the report’s real hopes and fears? No doubt they focus, as ever, on the domestic scene. Is there something we are not being told? The “risks”…”of relaxing IP protection are significant”, it says, as if something is making the existing establishment nervous.
Is it that the Government’s approach may be “deregulatory”? Are they worried that the BBC might be permitted to release its archive, giving the British public free access to what they have paid for? Or that the terms of trade for independent producers will be “sunsetted”? Or what?
Here at least are some things the Government might want to think about where the specific agenda of the Creative UK report is concerned:
Our independent producers have been a success but the larger ones are rapidly being absorbed by Hollywood studios. What are the implications of this?
BBC Worldwide is our one content distributor with international scale. Should government be thinking about whether it could be freed up to do more?
I agree that the UK’s unique mix funding, its innovative producers and of media-savvy consumers does make UK a “leading creative R&D laboratory for television”. The UK is worth watching.
This report does not tackle some of the critical issues that will face Government like: What is the future of the concept of Public Service content? How should it be defined? Will the contribution of others like thematic channels from outside the original public service core be recognised? What about the few remaining incentives that the Government has left, like guide prominence? How should they be used?
..and then there is high-speed broadband.
And many other issues.
It’s going to be an interesting time.