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Mary Macleod MP: Independent broadcasters deserve a level playing field in the television market

Macleod MaryMary Macleod is the Member of Parliament for Brentford and Isleworth. Follow Mary on Twitter.

Everyone knows that London is the world’s top financial centre, but perhaps more easily forgotten is that it is also one of the great hubs for the creative industries. 

Last weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the upcoming London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics are prime examples of what this city can achieve. Yet after the Olympic fanfare has died down, London will look again to rely on its strengths, and our creative sector will remain a major focus and driver for the UK economy. We therefore need to ensure that conditions which have fostered its impressive growth are maintained and developed. 

A recent report by London & Partners, the capital’s official promotional agency, stated that London’s creative industry is its second largest sector. It is worth £20 billion a year and responsible for generating 16% of the city’s annual gross value added. Almost 400,000 people work in London’s creative industries, with 20% directly employed in broadcasting, as well as film and video. This adds up to a third of the whole of the UK’s creative jobs. 

London also boasts access to some of the best graduate talent and many of the country’s independent broadcasters employ hundreds of technicians, planners and producers. The capital has a unique combination of skilled workers, cultural diversity, vast services, hi-tech infrastructure and direct access to wealthy consumer markets. These are perfect reasons why creative businesses should get their foot in the door, today. 

As the BBC leaves west London, others have stepped in, and among them are the independent broadcasters. We’re all familiar with the public service broadcasters (PSBs) – BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and so on. However, it is the independents which have demonstrated the most impressive growth in recent years. While not always getting the spotlight devoted to their larger cousins, they are a key reason behind the surge of the creative industry, and many of them are based at Chiswick Park, London’s new media hub, in my constituency. 

Non-PSBs rarely get a mention, yet a glance at the statistics behind them (as acknowledged by the Commercial Broadcasters Association – CoBA) proves their worth to the UK. The sector employs 22,000 people, has a 28% audience share in UK multi-channel homes and contributed over £2.2 billion to the UK economy in 2008 while £432 million was invested in original UK content in 2009. 

Chiswick Park’s promotional brochure explains why more than 40 organisations are already flourishing at this site with 12,000 people expected to be enjoying its facilities when completed: including access to four international airports while being one of the top 50 places to work (Financial Times).

One of those is QVC, the UK’s largest shopping channel, with more than 500 high-skilled professionals based at its creative and commerce centre. Others broadcasters include CBS News, Discovery, ESPN, Teletext and The Walt Disney Company.

The popularity of London as a creative broadcast hub is not just down to the amenable business environment. The success of its broadcast platforms plays a huge part. Freeview is a great British success story – in fact it should have made it onto one of the ‘This is GREAT Britain’ campaign posters! After the digital switchover, it has become the default way in which we watch TV in the UK.

Despite these successes, some of these independents are now commercially vulnerable due to the unfair and unclear regulatory system regarding channel allocation on the Freeview platform.

As it stands, the PSBs allocate valuable channel numbers for their commercial competitors, without transparent, independent adjudication and due process. To put it simply, if Freeview channels were a physical retail asset, this would be the equivalent of allowing the major supermarkets to move the location of a smaller competitor at will. This practice should end now.

I am concerned that the management of channel allocation is both opaque and not properly overseen by the regulator Ofcom.

More than 20 cross-party parliamentarians, are calling for better regulation of Freeview’s channel number activities, and that they follow the same procedures as other broadcast television platforms. BSkyB (also based in my constituency) has been regulated since the late 1990’s. So why not Freeview?

It is important that the UK broadcast market remains among the most dynamic and successful in the world. Freeview is now as synonymous with UK television as the BBC. Its prominence and position of responsibility for the broadcast industry in the UK means it needs appropriate and fair regulation. Independent broadcasters are vital to the success of the economy and we must ensure a level playing field when it comes to channel allocation.


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