The BBC has been told that it must be more transparent about its content acquisitions strategy after being accused by ITV of buying glossy U.S. shows to chase ratings.
Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, said the BBC must explain in its Annual Plan how buying content, as opposed to commissioning British originals, supports “distinctiveness” and engages different audiences.
The BBC is funded by the British public to the tune of £3.8B ($4.7B), meaning it has an obligation to be distinct from commercial rivals like ITV and serve all audiences.
Ofcom made the intervention as part of plans to update the BBC’s operating licence for a digital age from next month. A guiding principle of the changes is transparency, with Ofcom arguing that the BBC has not always provided proper “detail and clarity” on updates to its output and services.
In a submission to Ofcom’s review, ITV said the BBC had “dramatically increased” its spend on acquired content over the past six years, including deals for shows like Warner Bros. Discovery title Superman & Lois and films such as Marvel’s Avengers Assemble.
“The first issue with the BBC acquiring mainstream third-party content is that it sits uncomfortably with its mission to be distinctive and take creative risks,” ITV said.
“The second issue… is that the BBC competes in the market against other broadcasters, such as ITV, inflating the price at which the content is purchased.”
ITV suggested that the BBC should focus on distinctive acquisitions, pointing to previous deals for Nordic noirs, including The Killing and Borgen, which it said helped pave the way for other successful foreign-language dramas.
Ofcom said it did not agree that “BBC should be required to ensure that every one of its acquisitions is distinctive.” In other words, the regulator said the BBC can acquire U.S. content as long as it is helping the broadcaster serve different audiences.
But Ofcom added: “We agree with stakeholders that there needs to be greater transparency from the BBC on its overall approach to acquisitions.”
Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s Group Director for Broadcasting and Online Content, said: “We’ve been particularly disappointed by the BBC’s lack of detail and clarity around planned changes to its services, which has led to a lot of uncertainty for audiences and industry.
“Our strict new reporting rules will ensure the BBC is held to a higher level of public accountability, requiring it to clearly explain its plans before going ahead, as well as evaluating whether they work.
Other changes introduced by Ofcom include reducing BBC4’s original production quota to 65% as part of the corporation’s plan to cut the channel’s costs. Ofcom will also replace the BBC’s daily and weekly news and current affairs quota with an annual quota.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC’s regulation needs to evolve for the digital age so we can serve audiences with impartial news and distinctive UK content in a fast-changing global market so we welcome these changes. We are committed to transparency and will set out how we plan to deliver for audiences in the year ahead in our upcoming Annual Plan.”