Media convergence - Communications Committee Contents


The easiest way to understand media convergence is to think of how separate types of media—such as broadcast, print and online—have merged together. Media previously made distinct by their technology of distribution have converged. Newspapers are no longer just printed on large sheets of thin paper; they also have websites with up to the minute information, including videos which remind you of TV. Broadcasters do not just beam signals to your TV aerial or satellite dish; they have websites with articles published on them which might remind you more of the printed page. Families can still sit down together at a specified time to watch a TV programme, but programmes can also be watched at a later date on the internet, entirely at your own convenience.

The changes brought about by convergence should bring immense benefits for us all: increased competition, innovation and choice; economic opportunities for the UK creative sector; and value to citizens. But convergence brings three key challenges too: potential erosion of trust and confidence in the content we consume; challenges to the future of public service content; and outmoded regulation, which is slow to adapt to changing markets and audience expectations.

Ahead of the Government's White Paper on communications and the communications Bill, promised in this Parliament, we argue that forthcoming legislation must be drafted in such a way as to enable flexibility to adapt to an ever changing media environment. It is our view that new technologies and behaviours are evolving more quickly than regulatory protections and action will be required: to ensure a safer environment for content accessed via the internet; and to ensure that public expectations of content standards are met more broadly. It would be reckless to jettison the current regulatory arrangements which have served us so well; but equally, it would be complacent for the Government and Ofcom not to get ahead of the curve.

This Report makes specific recommendations under three headings:

On content standards, we argue that for the time being broadcast regulation can continue to co-exist with both on demand and press regulation without disrupting audiences' ability to build accurate expectations about the content they encounter. However, the framework within which these regulators fit will need updating, in time, to ensure consumer trust and confidence can be maintained. In our view, this will involve placing much audiovisual content on an equal regulatory footing, and as familiar protections such as the watershed may not apply universally across this content, a system of guidance and age-rating will need to be introduced to ensure audiences can make informed decisions about what it suits them and their families to watch. We also recognise the increasing role played by content accessed over the open internet and the important initiatives voluntarily undertaken to help guide and protect audiences there. This must broadly be the right approach; there should be no appetite to try and shackle the extraordinary opportunities presented by the internet. At present, however, these initiatives are somewhat diffuse and sporadic. We recommend that a more coordinated approach to self-regulation be introduced in which the expectations of the UK public are clearly articulated and digital intermediaries are encouraged to meet them.

On content creation, we argue that in a converged world, public service content will remain very important, if not more so, but will face challenges to its funding and effectiveness. We recommend that in advance of the next BBC Charter Review, the Government should conduct a comprehensive review of public service broadcasting in the round, to include not just the BBC but all other providers. We also propose various more immediate, but potentially valuable, regulatory measures to help support public service broadcasting. In particular, we deem it essential that measures are taken on prominence to ensure that audiences are able to discover and access public service content easily in a converged world.

On competition, we suggest clarifying Ofcom's competition powers in certain areas, but ensuring that high hurdles have to be overcome before intervention is allowed. What is more, we consider the BBC's economic impact and reflect on how this might best promote the public good, whilst reassuring the market, above all the newspaper industry, that it too has a secure foothold in the converged world.

None of this is easy, and predicting the pace of change is in many respects a foolish enterprise, but imaginative thinking is required to ensure that the UK's media remains at the head of the top table.

A very important issue, which we received some evidence on, but were not able to do justice to in this inquiry, is plurality—ensuring a range of viewpoints and that no one voice holds too much influence. This will be the subject of our next inquiry.

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