Recent media reports claim that advertiser-funded TV series funded by government departments have breached Ofcom’s editorial independence requirements. Nick Johnson reports.
Topic: Branded content
Who: Ofcom, Central Office of Information, Government departments
When: August 2008
Law stated as at: 31 August 2008
Ofcom investigates government 'propaganda' TV shows.
Ofcom is investigating claims that reality TV show Beat: Life on the Street may have broken editorial independence rules in Ofcom's Broadcasting Code.
The ITV series was funded, to the tune of £400,000, by the Home Office, whose role as a sponsor was flagged in ident films before and after each episode. However, it is alleged that the programmes breached the Ofcom Code through Home Office staff being given rights of approval over certain aspects. It is also claimed that the sponsor credits did not make it adequately clear that the programmes were funded by the Home Office.
Why this matters:
With the Ofcom Broadcasting Code requiring absolute editorial independence and, for now at least, prohibiting paid-for product placement, the UK regulatory environment is in many ways not particularly conducive to advertiser-funded programming (AFP). However, with broadcasters' content budgets increasingly stretched and advertisers increasingly concerned about ad-skipping technologies and audience fragmentation, the practice is slowly but surely becoming more prevalent.
Certainly the Government seems to buy into the idea, with apparently no fewer than seven TV shows having been funded through the Central Office of Information in recent years.
However, while the principle of editorial independence is clearly stated in the Ofcom Code, it is less clear what this actually means in practice for AFP. Ie just what level of information, input, consultation or approval can a funding entity have before this is deemed inappropriate editorial influence? Presumably, provision and ownership of the programme format by the advertiser must be OK, but is it always off limits for the advertiser to have a say in casting? What about technical matters specific to the advertiser's sector, where they may have substantial detailed knowledge that the broadcaster or production company may not otherwise be able to access? And should the bar be set higher for advertiser funders than it is for overseas co-producers and other providers of finance?
It is to be hoped that, regardless of the outcome of Ofcom's investigations, the regulator will take the opportunity to clarify these issues, as well as whether existing practices for disclosing advertiser involvement in programmes should be regarded as sufficient.