Following the finalisation of the Audio Visual Media Services Directive, Ofcom has been reviewing the UK rules on how often ads can appear during programmes and whether they can appear during some programmes at all. Following stage one of a two stage process a new Code has been published weighing in at just four pages instead of eighteen. Stephen Groom highlights the key changes.
When: July 2008
Law stated as at: 14 August 2008
UK Communications uber-regulator Ofcom published "a shorter and simpler" Code on the Scheduling of Television Advertisements ("Code").
This followed the signing off of the Audio Visual Media Services Directive ("AVMSD"), which prompted Ofcom to conduct a root and branch review of the existing "Rules on the Amount and Distribution of Advertising" ("Rules").
Stage One of the Review is now completed and focused on whether, regardless of the AVMSD, it might be a good idea to update the Rules.
This has led to a change of name to the marginally snappier "Code on the Scheduling of Television Advertisements" and to a severe slimming down exercise. Scrapped are various rules that in the words of Ofcom, "have little or no beneficial impact, either on viewers or broadcasters, and are in some cases helpful."
"Unhelpful" 20 minute gap rule scrapped
Examples included the ban on ads after the Epilogue when the latter only very rarely featured and an "unhelpful" rule forcing gaps of at least 20 minutes between commercial breaks.
These sometimes led to artificial break patterns in drama programmes that were not optimal, particularly where imported programmes, mainly from the US, were already made to fit around breaks of different lengths.
Another rule that created problems was one requiring that, barring exceptional cases, ad breaks could only occur during a "natural break" in the programme. The Rules featured a separate section laid down how to judge when a "natural break" occurred in ten different scenarios including sport, children's programmes and documentaries.
Now the new Code scraps this prescriptive approach, encouraging broadcasters to exercise their best judgment by saying simply that ad breaks should not harm the integrity of programmes.
More frequent ads during films
Also problematic had been the Rules' tight restrictions on advertising in particular types of programmes. In films, for example, although the existing EU Directive allowed a shorter gap between ad breaks, the Rules required that at least 45 minutes elapse between each ad break.
The Rules also banned ad breaks altogether within religious programmes and within news or current affairs programmes of less than half an hour. Ofcom felt these rules unjustifiably created disincentives to showing such programmes.
So now the new Code allows more frequent ad breaks while films are showing, every 30 minutes instead of every 45, and removes the restrictions on breaks in news, current affairs and religious programmes except that ad breaks during religious services are still banned.
Jury still out on ad length limits
On the separate but important issues of the amount of advertising and teleshopping allowed or the number of advertising breaks permitted during programmes, the Code is no different to the old Rules. But this is not because the Ofcom thinks the rules here are fine. The regulator wants to conduct a separate "Stage Two" consultation on these issues in Autumn 2008, informed by the healthy feedback it received during the Stage One consultation.
Why this matters:
Any updating process that leads to the reduction of rules from eighteen pages to just four has to be applauded and the changes so far made are clearly good news for broadcasters and viewers alike.
As for Stage Two, Ofcom has already made it clear that the feedback on the Stage One consultation, from broadcasters, advertisers and viewers alike, evinced a strong stakeholder belief that no-one would benefit from an increase in the advertising minutage allowances on television channels.
No prizes for guessing the likely outcome on this issue then, but Ofcom sticks firmly to the position that no decisions have yet been reached and all options are within reason still theoretically in play.