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Future of TV The Media Convergence Media

The UK won’t allow longer public service broadcaster ad breaks – here’s why

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By Ed Cox, Founder and managing director

September 25, 2023 | 7 min read

For The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, The Media Convergence, Ed Cox, founder and managing director of Yonder Media, explains why the UK regulator Ofcom decided not to extend the duration of PSB TV ad breaks.

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Last week, UK regulator Ofcom dumped its proposed changes to the complicated rules around the Public Sector Broadcasters (PSBs), preferring to “retain the status quo for the time being.”

For many years, the commercial PSB channels (including ITV, Channel 4, and Five) have been subject to stricter advertising rules than non-PSB media. These rules govern everything from the total advertising minutage allowed per hour to the number of ad breaks per show.

The review was intended to level the playing field since the media landscape has changed enormously over the last decade with the rise of streaming services and the global digital and technology giants. A relaxation of the rules would potentially make life a little easier for the PSBs and allow those that can sell more commercial airtime, in theory, to reinvest into programming. The concern is that the domestic TV marketplace is throttled by archaic rules that prevent fair competition and place them at a disadvantage.

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The problem with the proposed change is that – even in Ofcom’s own words – the benefits of the anticipated legislative changes are “uncertain.”

It’s a delicate balancing act to maintain healthy competition, media plurality, a thriving creative industry, and a quality TV landscape for viewers. It seems that the decision around advertising rules will get wrapped up in the forthcoming ‘Media Bill,’ which is taking a broader look at the role of PSBs in the digital age.

Much of the debate seems to be concentrated around the threat to our established PSBs, the threat to the long tail of non-PSB channels, who would lose significant advertising revenue if the big channels could sell more airtime, or the threat to the quality and quantity of news output on the PSB channels, who would be able to sell more ads in those dayparts. But so far, I’ve not seen much consideration for the needs of advertisers.

Advertisers provide the very funding that makes the whole free-to-air media landscape function. But media planners and buyers don’t just invest ad budgets into the biggest channels with the biggest numbers or the cheapest prices. Not all impacts are the same, and a skilled media planner seeks out the ad breaks and environments with the right conditions to get the message seen and noticed. Anything that threatens that could impact the very effectiveness that sees TV advertising deliver superior ROIs than any other channel for most situations.

Advertisers (and their media planners and buyers) want high-quality ad break environments – not too many ads in a break and not too many breaks per hour – because otherwise, attention and impact are diminished. So, while we want our domestic, high-quality, and ad-funded stations to thrive, we also want to ensure they provide an effective space for our clients’ messages to get through. With relaxed rules, the PSBs might be able to provide more minutage, but at the risk of downgrading its attractiveness – or rather effectiveness – to advertisers.

We also want a variety of TV stations. ITV has a broad reach but isn’t for everyone. Some people only watch history channels, stations about the arts, or channels broadcasting in Punjabi. Watching this content on the big screen provides an advertising opportunity with much more impact than on a small screen. Ofcom must be very careful about upsetting the ecosystem that allows these stations to exist in broadcast (or on-demand) via the big screen. Of course, these media brands can and do exist in digital-only spaces, and connected TVs mean that, in theory, they could be played on the big box. Still, we must be wary of putting these smaller channels into the lions’ den of competition with YouTube and the wider digital advertising ecosystem, which will challenge their viability.

Ofcom describes its duty as first and foremost to ensure “people across the UK are satisfied with what they see and hear on TV and radio, and that programs reflect the audiences they serve.” The regulator needs to protect the UK landscape against global big beasts of Netflix, Apple, Disney and Amazon, but shouldn’t protect the domestic big players (ITV, C4, Five) by sacrificing the little guys who make up the long tail.

All said and done, advertisers want a thriving landscape of advertising opportunities. Our biggest brand-building medium is under threat mainly because of the huge rise in time spent consuming video and other content on the mobile phone. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, provided the advertising opportunities within online video were as effective as TV on a like-for-like basis. But with average view times for TikTok ads being as low as six seconds, this trend threatens the ability of brands to communicate their messages. Some brands need more than that to explain or introduce new products or reposition their propositions.

Media fragmentation is a reality, and it’s only going in one direction – and that’s a challenge for everyone, whether on the media owner or advertiser side of the line. Given the difficulty in balancing a delicate ecosystem, perhaps it’s no surprise that Ofcom has kicked the can down the road for now. But if Ofcom focuses on its first responsibility – the UK population – it will do what it can to protect a diverse media landscape, which is also good news for advertisers. We want what viewers want: high-quality content that includes news, current affairs, educational shows, science stuff, the arts, documentaries, and religious programming. We want what DCMS has called ‘distinctively British’ programming: from Bake Off and Gogglebox to Planet Earth, Fleabag, to Coronation Street to Derry Girls. To quote the media minister John Whittingdale: “Content that is iconic, not generic.”

Because if there’s one place I don’t want to place my client’s ad, it’s next to something generic. Let’s protect our media environment.

Future of TV The Media Convergence Media

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