Broadcasting Acts


Broadcasting Acts
   The 1980 and 1990 Broadcasting Acts are among the most important UK media legislation to date and have had significant effects, though not always as envisaged.
   The 1980 Act created the framework for Channel 4, and its specific identity and remit. The station would serve a range of interests (notably minorities), innovate in programme design and production, and focus on education. Channel 4 would not produce programmes, but would commission them from independent producers. This fulfilled the government’s desire to introduce competition to the industry, and so the Act mixed traditional public service concepts with Thatcherite competition. ITV would sell airtime for adverts on Channel, and Wales was allocated a channel, S4C. The 1990 Act addressed the question of ITV network franchises. All commercial licences were now put out to tender, with two thresholds to be cleared; a ‘quality’ barrier (based on programme content) and the size of the bid (with the highest bidder expected to win).
   The Act was amended, however, to allow the Independent Television Commission to look more carefully at the quality criteria and award licences to lower bids. This ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause partly explains why only seven of fifteen franchises awarded in 1991 went to the highest bidders. The Act also rejected calls to introduce subscriptions to fund the BBC, and switched Channel 4 from an IBA subsidiary to an institutional trust. A funding formula was established for Channel 4, so that if advertising revenue fell below a certain level, ITV companies would contribute some of the shortfall; conversely, any Channel 4 advertising surplus would be shared out among the ITV companies.
   Both Acts have proved important. The 1980 legislation has worked well, with Channel 4 maintaining its market share at around 11 percent, pioneering innovative programmes and contributing strongly to British films. But the 1990 Act is more contentious, with complaints of declining quality and the loss of thousands of jobs. Certainly the regulatory bodies have warned some of the new companies about their output, while Channel 4’s funding formula has worked in reverse, with the channel paying millions in advertising surpluses to ITV (although this rule was scrapped in 1996). However, it is too early to say how tendering will work in the long term, and 1996 saw talk of privatizing Channel 4, a new challenge for commercial television alongside the 1997 arrival of Channel 5 and cable, and BSkyB.
   See also: Video Recordings Act
   Further reading
    Seymour-Ure, C. (1996) The British Press and Broadcasting Since 1945, Oxford: Blackwell, 2nd edn.
   REX NASH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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