Netflix Warns Media Bill Could Have ‘Chilling Effect’

Netflix has warned that a bill to reform regulation of public service broadcasters could “prove unworkable” and have a “chilling effect” on what the streamer offers in Britain.

Benjamin King, Netflix’s director of public policy in the UK and Ireland, spoke at a Westminster Media Forum event, where he addressed the issues arising from the provision of the Media Bill.

The draft of the bill, currently reviewed by the government, plans to update the UK’s public broadcasting framework for the digital age and enable Ofcom to introduce a video-on-demand code to protect UK audiences from harmful material.

“The draft legislation will bring video-on-demand (VoD) services such as Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video under new Ofcom content rules, ensuring children and vulnerable viewers are better protected from harmful material and that these on-demand online-only streaming services platforms are properly accountable to the UK regulator,” culture secretary Lucy Frazer said in a statement on March 29.

According to King, the government’s move to place impartiality requirements on non-news programmes could mean fewer documentaries for British subscribers of Netflix.

“We are concerned that government’s plans could, without careful thought, prove unworkable, or risk a chilling effect on Netflix’s appetite to make available our many documentaries, which are so beloved by UK members,” King said.

While the Media Bill plans to bring video-on-demand services like Netflix TV-like services to the same high standards as broadcast TV channels, King expressed concerns over the government plans.

“Ofcom has highlighted in the past the potential threats to freedom of expression from the overzealous application of this challenging concept and we would strongly urge the government to consider whether legislation is necessary given the absence of any obvious potential harm to the status quo,” he said.

‘Deliberate and Informed Choices’

The Department for Culture remains alert to the possible risks of underregulated broadcasters catering to large audiences. In 2022, it issued a response to the consultation on audience protection standards for video-on-demand services.

The government announced plans to set a two-tier system for enhanced regulation. The upper tier would be primarily aimed at larger on-demand services where the overwhelming majority of TV-like content can be found and where audiences are more likely to presume or expect a higher level of regulation.

Considering issues of free speech and proportionality, the government said, smaller, lower-risk on-demand services in the UK will continue under existing rules.

King has argued that a tiered system would confuse the audiences. He also spoke about the decision by Netflix to safeguard subscribers, who make “deliberate and informed choices” to view shows. This is in contrast to viewers stumbling across shows on linear TV, King said.

Netflix will also adopt the British Board of Film Classification age rating system to help children and families choose what’s right for them and avoid what’s not.

Currently, Netflix and other on-demand services, other than BBC’s iPlayer, are not subject to Ofcom’s Broadcasting Code. Under the proposed changes in legislation, UK audiences will be “better protected from harmful material and better able to complain to Ofcom if they see something they are concerned about.”

Ofcom has acknowledged the backlash to the Netflix docu-series featuring Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, released in December 2022. However, Ofcom could not pursue any action against the streamer because Netflix’s Europe base is in the Netherlands, and Ofcom can only regulate services based in the UK.

According to King, attempting to transpose British regulatory rules on international programming “requires careful thought.”

Ofcom’s Media Nations 2022 report showed that while the overall viewing of TV and subscription video-on-demand services like Netflix and Disney had fallen from its pandemic peak, viewers are still spending an increasing proportion of their viewing time watching on-demand content.

The UK audiences show a “strong appetite” for new and original UK-produced. Among the most-watched titles on Netflix in 2022 were Stay Close, After Life, Bridgerton, and the documentary The Tinder Swindler, which were produced in the UK.

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