"And now... the news on Netflix." Ofcom is dancing to the government's terrible tune and it's a bum note for the BBC

Suggesting streaming services offer public service content is just another front in the war on the BBC and Channel 4.

You fire up Netflix. Do you choose the latest high-budget drama about rich people treating each other in beastly ways or… a the news stream with a report about people who are upset about bin provision in Barnsley?

That’s the future that Ofcom has seriously (seriously?!) suggested might happen. As well as saying an urgent update to the law is required to help public sector broadcasters compete with the streaming platforms, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+, the regulator has put forward the idea that streamers might carry news.

Dame Melanie Dawes, the economist and civil servant who was appointed as Ofcom’s chief executive in February, told the Press Association news agency:

“There might be ways of bringing new providers or even providers that are already there, like Netflix or Sky or Discovery, into the market.”

Ofcom’s ‘Small Screen: Big Debate’ report on the future of public service broadcasting expands on that idea suggesting that tax relief and ‘contestable funds’ could be used to encourage other providers to create public service content, including some “with a national or local focus”.

There’s more chance of Jacob Rees-Mogg developing a taste for hip-hop and the herb than of Netflix willingly giving up space on its menu to news content. Remember, Netflix is HQ’d in Holland and that strategic move — partly for tax reasons — means that it does not come under the auspices of any UK regulator, Ofcom included.

Melanie Dawes has no background in the media, beyond being married to former Telegraph and Daily Mail big beast/silver fox/complete cock Benedict Brogan (who now spins for Lloyds as its Group Director of Public Affairs).

Dawes was previously the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Housing, Communities, and Local Government, and before that a mandarin in the Treasury, and the Cabinet Office. Far be it for me to call her a creature of the right, but if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, swam in the duck ponds at Malvern College and Oxford, and is married to a former-Daily Mail hack duck, well, it… uh… fits the bill.

While Dame Melanie and Ofcom suggest that public sector broadcasters will welcome the call to change legislation on the TV regulatory framework, I’m not so sure. Bringing public service broadcasting — especially news — within the walls of Netflix’s well-defended castle is likely to be a very bad thing for the BBC and Channel 4 News in particular. Once you can argue that people are getting their news from Netflix — even as that company remains extremely oblique about specific viewer numbers for any individual show — the demand to ‘defund’/defenestre the BBC is strengthened. “See!” the usual suspects, including coalminer cosplayer Darren Grimes, will cry, “People are paying for news. Why should we have the BBC?!”

In a UK TV news environment where partisan channels from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK and the Andrew Neil-fronted GB News are set to launch imminently, these notions from Ofcom are worrying. Yes, public sector broadcasters are arguing for modernised rules on competition, prominence, advertising, content regulation, and production quotas but if the unique position of public service news broadcasting is undermined by the modernisation moves, they’ll regret ever speaking up.

With the bloodless rhetoric of the career civil servant — which, of course, she is — Dame Melanie said in a statement:

“Our traditional broadcasters are among the finest in the world. But television has witnessed a blizzard of change and innovation, with audiences turning to online services with bigger budgets. For everything we’ve gained, we risk losing the kind of outstanding UK content that people really value. So there’s an urgent need to reform the rules, and build a stronger system of public service media that can flourish in the digital age.”

The cliches ping off the screen at you with British exceptionalism (“finest in the world”), trite analysis (“a blizzard of change and innovation”) and the new new Elizabethan-era rhetoric (“the digital age”). It all adds up to a cloud of guff so large that it’s probably visible on weather apps. You can expect the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, led by sentient potato Oliver Dowden, to receive these suggestions in the most bad faith possible.

Ofcom quotes its own research to assert — I think correctly — that the public stills sees value in public service output. In 2019, just 38% of viewing by 16 to 34-year-old quizzed by Ofcom was of traditional broadcast content. 40% of viewers of streaming services said they could “imagine watching no broadcast TV at all in five years’ time”. However, it’s worth noting that figure will have been developed through multiple-choice options rather than from an open question.

70% of those surveyed believed local and regional news is important and… the BBC currently plans to slash regional news in England.

The Ofcom report also notes that original UK children’s programming, education, and religious programmes, are public service content too and that streaming services are unlikely to provide them. On Netflix and Disney+ — both of which we have in my house — the children’s programmes consumed by my step-daughter are almost 100% voiced by Americans and produced in the US. When I was a child, watching mostly the BBC and ITV, I saw lots of shows with British characters as well as great stuff from France (cartoons dubbed into English) and Australian productions such as Round The Twist. Children growing up in the UK deserve to see stories about them.

The BBC’s response to Ofcom’s consultation is as corporate and bland as you might expect from a corporation now under the watchful eye of former Conservative council candidate Tim Davie:

“We welcome Ofcom’s consultation showing that public service broadcasters are highly valued by UK audiences. A publicly-funded BBC is at the heart of a thriving UK creative sector. We’re also pleased to see Ofcom’s call for regulatory reform that’s fit for a global, digital market place. We’ll look at any proposals carefully and respond fully in due course.”

I, for once, love it when someone suggests “regulatory reform that’s fit for a global digital market place” and I’m sure you do too. What I know for certain that Reed Hastings and the other rapacious Silicon Valley bloodsuckers who run Netflix — which like Uber in food and transport absolutely haemorrhages money while screwing competitors who cannot access such huge levels of debt and investment — have no love for news.

If Netflix ever does play host to public service content, you can expect it to be shoved in a virtual corner, unloved and unpromoted, while the service also takes whatever money it can from the government for doing it this great favour. And realistically, in Netflix’s brightly lit sweet shop, how many users are going to reach for the mound of vegetables that have been piled up in the corner?

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