Behind the recent industry disappointment at the lack of relaxation of product placement restrictions, OFCOM’s new Broadcasting Code quietly introduced a number of changes on other branded content issues.
Topic: Branded content
Where: Riverside House, London
When: May 2005
In line with its duties under the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has now released a new Broadcasting Code. It comes into effect on 25 July 2005. The new single Code takes the place of six legacy codes that Ofcom inherited from the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority and the Broadcasting Standards Commission, namely:
- BSC Code on Fairness and Privacy
- BSC Code on Standards
- ITC Programme Code
- ITC Code of Programme Sponsorship
- RA News and Current Affairs Code and Programme Code
- The sponsorship rules contained in the RA Advertising and Sponsorship Code.
The new Broadcasting Code condenses these codes into a framework of rules and principles. But it also shows a change in the regulator's position in a number of areas. One of those is the area of sponsorship and commercial references:
- Permitted sponsors. Betting and gaming companies may now sponsor TV and radio programmes, although not programmes aimed at people under 18 (Code 9.3).
- Channel sponsorship. The previous ban on sponsorship of a whole TV channels no longer applies.
- Length of sponsor credits. Sponsor credits are no longer subject to specific length restrictions. However on TV they must still be "clearly separated from advertising" and cannot contain "advertising messages" or "calls to action" (Code 9.14). Sponsor references in programme trails must be "brief and secondary" (Code 9.15) but the previous 5 second limit is no longer an express restriction.
- Announcers/news presenters. The previous ban on news presenters and station announcers being featured in TV sponsorship credits no longer applies, although there is still the over-riding rule that credits must be "clearly separated from programmes by temporal or spatial means" (Code 9.13).
- Position of credits. It is still necessary to identify the sponsor at the beginning and/or end of each sponsored programme (Code 9.7). However previously the only other credits allowed were bumper credits on entering or leaving a commercial break. Arguably the new Code would allow for sponsor credits to appear at other points within a programme's broadcast, although the requirement of clear separation "by temporal or spatial means" would still remain. On the face of it this would seem to allow split screen arrangements or perhaps even for a sponsorship message to appear in a corner as a "watermark". However, Ofcom's guidance notes state that, with spatial separation, the size and duration of the credit should be limited to "avoid giving undue prominence to the sponsor". (We're not sure this stacks up. Undue prominence is about content of the programme itself. Given that the sponsor credit is required to be entirely separate from the programme, how can the size or duration of the credit amount to undue prominence within the programme? Perhaps Ofcom will clarify this.)
Why this matters
With growing interest in "branded content"/advertiser funded programming both as a marketing communication tool and as a source of additional finance for broadcasters and producers, many in the UK have looked with envy at the more permissive regulatory regime the other side of the Atlantic.
A lot of media coverage in the last few weeks has suggested that Ofcom was about to relax its position in relation to product placement. However, the fact is that the new Code still bans product placement (Code 10.5) and broadcasters are still obliged to "maintain the independence of editorial control over programme content" (Code 10.1).
Ofcom has indicated that it will consult on product placement in the context of a wider assessment of the broadcast advertising market later in the year. But its hands remain bound to some extent by the requirements of the Television Without Frontiers Directive. Those who wish to see meaningful change to the UK's regulatory regime will need to lobby Brussels as well as Ofcom.
In the meantime, however, the changes in the new Code will open up some interesting new avenues for marketers to explore and should help boost sponsorship revenues for broadcasters.