If you’re a TV viewer who finds your favourite shows interrupted by frequent adverts annoying, you might have a serious reason for concern.
Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, has proposed changes that could significantly disrupt the current balance between advertising and public service news coverage.
The Commercial Broadcasters Association (COBA) has issued a warning this week, that these changes could drastically increase the amount of advertising on public service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4.
This could result in nearly half an hour of news programming being cut every weekday, which adds up to about 115 hours less of news coverage each year.
The proposal would allow an increase of up to 48 minutes of advertising per day on each channel. That’s more than 800 hours of additional adverts each year.
This shift could not only disrupt commercial revenues across the sector and threaten the viability of smaller commercial channels but also undermine the very diversity of media, according to COBA.
These days, both ITV and Channel 4 offer optional paid streaming plans (ITVX Premium and Channel 4+) that let viewers watch shows without adverts. But live feeds continue to show adverts – even if you’re subscribed to these premium tiers. Therefore, news programmes are particularly sensitive to these changes.
In light of that, the most noticeable impact would possibly be on viewers of news programs. With the proposed increase in advertising hours, broadcasters would be forced to place more adverts around the news.
Under the current regulations, public service broadcasters have strict requirements on how advertising is distributed across peak and off-peak times.
However, with the proposed increase in advertising hours, broadcasters would be forced to place more adverts around the news, as those shows are the only times when broadcasters can use these extra advertising minutes.
Let’s consider the examples of ITV1 and Channel 4, two major public service broadcasters.
If the proposals were to go into effect, the amount of advertising around news on ITV1 could nearly triple during peak times. The current average of around 9.5 minutes of advertising could inflate to a staggering 26 minutes.
Similarly, for Channel 4, the increase would be even more dramatic. Currently, Channel 4 airs approximately one minute of advertisements per hour during its news coverage. Under the new rules, this could surge to 12 minutes per hour
This is a serious concern for those invested in the quality and quantity of news coverage by public service broadcasters. The COBA report highlights that this would inevitably lead to substantial cuts in news editorial output.
This shift could drastically change the viewers’ experience, impacting not only the duration but the rhythm and pace of news broadcasts.
As advertising breaks become more frequent and longer, viewers may find the news programs less engaging and informative, a significant departure from the trusted and accurate news that is currently most valued by the audience
Adam Minns, COBA’s Executive Director, has criticized Ofcom’s proposal, arguing that it doesn’t take into account evidence showing that these changes could be damaging for the industry and are unwelcome by viewers.
He emphasized that the proposal could strain smaller channels and erode the most important aspect of the public service broadcasting system: news.
These concerns are especially poignant in an era of widespread support for public service news against the backdrop of misinformation and “fake news”. Both the government and Ofcom’s own audience research have underscored the importance of trusted and accurate news.
In an earlier statement back in April, COBA expressed viewers’ disdain for the proposed increase in advertising.
Ofcom’s own research showed a “negative, visceral reaction” from viewers to the idea of more advertising, which they feared would disrupt their TV viewing and impact their overall program enjoyment.
Ofcom suggested that viewers might tolerate more adverts if they believed it would result in more investment in content.
However, the regulator admitted that the financial impact of any changes could not be predicted, and so may not result in any additional content investment.
Even the advertising body ISBA warned of the limited likelihood of any substantial positive financial impact from the proposed changes.
COBA’s own research has shown that audiences are overwhelmingly against an increase in the number of adverts on commercial Public Service Broadcasters.
A survey of more than 1,000 people across the UK showed that more than two-thirds of viewers would watch fewer programs on commercial Public Service Broadcasters if these channels were to show more adverts.
A significant portion said they would instead watch more content on advert-free services offered by platforms such as Netflix (though it’s worth mentioning that Netflix has its own cheaper ad-supported tier these days).
Views and evidence were submitted to Ofcom on this matter up until May 31 – and a decision will be made in the future, taking those views into consideration.