New BBC operating licence requires BBC iPlayer and Sounds to become more transparent

Ofcom says it was “disappointed” by the BBC’s previous lack of details and clarity

Broadcast regulator Ofcom has today unveiled a new operating licence for the BBC, which for the first time will include requirements around BBC Sounds, as well as requiring better discoverability and transparency from the broadcasting company.

The new modernised BBC operating licence, which will come into effect 1 April 2023, will require the broadcasting company to meet its audience’s changing needs as more of them turn to on-demand listening, safeguard important content, and allow it to be held more accountable by Ofcom.

“We recognise that the BBC needs to adapt quickly to keep up with changes in what viewers and listeners want, and how they get their content,” said Ofcom Group broadcasting and online content director Kevin Bakhurst. “So we’re future-proofing our regulation to enable the BBC to transform and innovate, while safeguarding content that matters most to audiences.”

According to the regulator’s research, audience consumption habits have changed since Ofcom was appointed as the BBC’s first independent regulator in 2017 with its total daily consumption of broadcast content dropping from 73% that year to 59% in 2021. To meet these changes, as part of the new licence agreement, the BBC is now required to make its important content and at-risk programming accessible to its online audiences via BBC iPlayer and BBC Sounds, as well as wider content across a range of genres like music, children’s programming, and Gaelic language learning. 

Additionally, research organisation Jisgsaw was commissioned by Ofcom to conduct focus group sessions with BBC online service users as part of its March 2023 qualitative research report. The research found that many participants use third-party platforms such as Apple Podcasts to listen to BBC programmes, but were unaware that they were consuming BBC content, and were not aware of the extent of programming available through the BBC Sounds app. 

To address this, the new licence requires the BBC to report how its approach to discoverability allows audiences to access a broad range of content and how it balances its editorial curation and personalisation across BBC iPlayer and Sounds. 

“We welcome these changes which reflect the need for the BBC’s regulation to evolve for the digital age so we can best serve all audiences with impartial news and distinctive UK content in a fast-changing global market," A BBC spokesperson told PodPod. “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."

For the first time, Ofcom has made it mandatory for the BBC to become more transparent with its content and editorial plans and its performance, with strict and detailed requirements on what the broadcasting company should report. As part of its research, Ofcom consulted with a number of stakeholders and other informative bodies to help make its decision.

This included bodies like British consumer group VLV which asked for Ofcom to have more power in overseeing the BBC’s annual plan before it is published and make any changes it sees fit - although this recommendation was not implemented, with the regulator stating that “it is not Ofcom’s role to approve or sign off the plan or the BBC’s targets”. 

The BBC is now required to include extensive details in its Annual plan on how the company plans to deliver its promises to its audience, as well as listing total broadcast hours, and hours of new content by genre. The BBC will then be required to conduct an evaluation of whether it delivered or not on these plans in its annual report which will allow Ofcom to hold it accountable. 

“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,” said Bakhurst. “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.” 

Unlike the rest of the requirements, which come into force 1 April, Ofcom has made an exception with the new transparency rules, which have become effective immediately following the publication of the new licence.

Additionally, a number of stakeholders including News Broadcasting and Pact called for the BBC to implement greater transparency on its forecast spend, with some arguing that there should be more transparency on how the licensing fee is spent by region.

"We welcome BBC Sounds being more explicitly included in the Operating Licence," said AudioUK managing director Chloe Straw. "We also welcome greater transparency, however there is not sufficient detail on what this will look like and for us it should include where the BBC spends its money in audio, in terms of the independent sector versus in-house and how that is spread around the UK."

"Also, while Ofcom acknowledges the decline in commissioning in audio drama, we are concerned they are not proposing any kind of specific level of hours or spend against which the BBC’s future performance can be measured, over and above any commitment the BBC itself makes on an annual basis.”      

However, Ofcom has stated that it does not think it would be “appropriate” for the BBC to publicly report on its financial budget and planned spend as it is considered commercially sensitive information, but added that the broadcaster would still be required to confidentially send the information to Ofcom in appropriate scenarios.