Concerns about sustaining the success of public service broadcasters (PSBs) in the face of competition from global streaming platforms were raised in the government’s broadcasting white paper in April, which noted that the wealth of choice available to TV viewers puts financial pressure on broadcasters like ITV and Channel 5. In a review of public service media entitled “Small Screen: Big Debate”, Ofcom explained that advertising regulation is an important area affecting the financial sustainability of PSBs.
Restrictions on the quantity and scheduling of advertising were originally imposed to maintain the quality of the viewing experience. Ofcom’s current rules are based on the EU’s Audiovisual Media Services Directive (“AVMSD”), which has been retained in part following Brexit. The UK is no longer required to follow the AVMSD, although in any event it had set stricter limits on the frequency of advertising than the minimum requirements of the directive (in particular the directive does not make any distinction between limits on PSBs and limits on other channels).
Under the current Code on the Scheduling of Television Advertising (“COSTA”), PSB channels must not air more than an average of seven minutes of advertising an hour. This average is measured across the whole day. From 6pm to 11pm, this average must not exceed 8 minutes per hour. A single ad break must not be longer than three minutes and 50 seconds, and in a programme with a duration of between 21 and 44 minutes, only one ad break is permitted.
For non-PSB channels, the rules are more flexible. An average of 9 minutes of advertising per hour is permitted, with a further 3 minutes allowed for teleshopping. There are no specific restrictions on the duration of advertising breaks on non-PSB channels, and a programme with a duration of 26-45 minutes can contain up to two ad breaks.
There is also a general rule that time devoted to TV advertising and teleshopping on any channel in any clock hour must not exceed 12 minutes.
Read the current rules on the frequency of television advertising here.
Ofcom says that it has already engaged informally with numerous broadcasters , which revealed a significant difference in opinion.
In its call for evidence, Ofcom explains that it wants to hear the opinions of stakeholders on the proposed removal of the stricter rules that apply to PSBs, which it considers may be distorting competition. This would mean that PSBs would only be subject to the same 9 minute per hour average limit that applies to other broadcasters, and there would be no maximum duration for advertising breaks. An Ofcom spokesperson has explained that the regulator aims to “strike the right balance between protecting viewers’ interests and sustaining our traditional broadcasters”. As such, a range of stakeholders have been invited to share their views on these possible changes.
Ofcom is also seeking evidence and information on how the changes might impact audiences, broadcasters, advertisers and competition in the industry. Views on how broadcast television advertising is likely to develop more generally over the next five to ten years are also welcome.
Changes to the rules on the frequency and duration of ad breaks have been discussed in the past as a means of tackling falling revenues, but in 2011 Ofcom published a review that concluded that the regulation was delivering on its purpose effectively.
This call for evidence is open until Friday 7 October 2022, following which Ofcom will consider whether it should launch a full consultation.
Authored by Oliver Wilson and Johari Adjei.