Ofcom, the communications regulator for the United Kingdom, has set new licence terms for the BBC. It introduces wide-ranging requirements for online services. The BBC will also have to explain planned changes to its services in detail before they are implemented.

Ofcom became the first independent regulator of the BBC under the current BBC Charter and Agreement, which began on 1 January 2017.

The new licence terms come into effect on 1 April 2023. Ofcom says that it has been designed to hold the BBC firmly to account on delivering its remit, while enabling it to adapt and innovate in how it delivers its services as the viewing and listening habits of users are shifting dramatically.

Viewing and listening habits have rapidly diversified over the last decade, and online video and audio streaming services are increasingly important to people. International commercial players are increasingly drawing viewers and listeners away from public service broadcasters, while traditional broadcast television as we know it has seen a long-term and substantial decline.

Live television contributed an average 174 viewing minutes a day in 2017. In 2021 that had fallen to 144 minutes a day. The total proportion of broadcast programming viewed, at the time of transmission, through recorded playback, or online, also fell from 73% to 59%.

Despite relentless promotion of the BBC iPlayer, average viewing across all the online players of all broadcasters contributed only 15 minutes a day in 2021.

Research commissioned by Ofcom found that many people still see the BBC iPlayer as a catch-up service for programmes they missed on traditional television, rather than a viewing destination.

Ofcom recognised that the BBC must transform and modernise it if is to continue delivering on its remit.

For the first time, the licence sets comprehensive new requirements for the online services of the BBC, including the BBC iPlayer, BBC Sounds and the BBC web site. It requires the BBC to make important content available for online audiences and make it easy to discover.

Discoverability means enabling users to find new and important content that may interest them, which they might not otherwise come across.

The updated licence also demands a step-change from the corporation by imposing transparency as a core obligation. This follows concerns about the lack of detail and clarity provided by the BBC around planned changes to its programmes and services.

Too often, there is a lack of detail and clarity in the announcements about proposed changes to BBC services, Ofcom comments. The BBC also needs to be clear and open about whether its changes are successful and prove effective in practice. Recognising that, and being prepared to change course, is essential to secure the trust of audiences.

The BBC will have to explain in more detail how it is delivery for audiences and for the first time will have to publish its plans before making significant changes to its services.

Ofcom warns that it will not hesitate to act if it is concerned that the BBC is not delivering for audiences.

“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,” notes Kevin Bakhurst, the director for broadcasting and online content at Ofcom. “So we’re future-proofing our regulation to enable the BBC to transform and innovate, while safeguarding content that matters most to audiences.”

“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. 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.”