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U.K. broadcasters close ranks in battle with streaming giants

The U.K.’s broadcasters are developing a common streaming platform to defend themselves against U.S. tech giants and a planned overhaul of local TV laws.

The British Broadcasting Corp., ITV Plc, Channel 4 and ViacomCBS Inc.’s Channel 5 are building a shared service that would better promote their streaming brands, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named as the discussions are private.

The work is being loosely organized through the company Digital UK, owned by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The idea is to stay relevant and present a united front in negotiations with the new gatekeepers of streaming TV: Silicon Valley operating systems like Alphabet Inc.’s Android and smart TV manufacturers such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd.

Representatives for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Freeview declined to comment.

Viewers used to turn on a TV and land on the first channel. Now they’re greeted with a variety of services assembled by whoever made the television, set-top box or dongle.

That means it’s getting harder for content producers to get their best shows noticed as the list of competing streaming platforms grows. WarnerMedia’s HBO Max launches across part of Europe later this month, and Comcast Corp.’s Sky is expected to unveil its own smart-TV technology in coming days.

The U.K.’s so-called public service broadcasters are concerned that their “prominence” is increasingly at the mercy of technology companies that would prefer to sell the best space on their landing pages to the highest bidder.

So executives are looking at multiple ways to get content in front of viewers, the people said. The efforts focus on ensuring content “tiles” are seen on smart-TV interfaces, as well as voice commands and dedicated buttons on remote controls.

The platform’s final shape is still to be determined but it will effectively be an upgrade to Digital UK’s Freeview Play service, one of the people said. The project was first reported by the Telegraph newspaper.

The sense of urgency has grown since pandemic lockdowns accelerated the dominance of streaming as a way to consume TV.

“Although broadcast channels and streaming services alike saw a big jump in their audience numbers at the start of the pandemic, the streaming services are the ones who have held onto these gains,” said Julian Aquilina of media research firm Enders Analysis.

Law Change
The new platform could also help the local broadcasters in lobbying the government as it prepares to reform Britain’s system of public service broadcasting.

The country’s media laws give a handful of companies extra visibility in exchange for responsibilities around producing trusted news and content for a wide range of demographics.

The arrangement has covered traditional linear television, but still doesn’t extend to streaming services.

The channels now want their prominence on smart TVs and other devices to be enshrined in law, and the new super-app provides a simpler vehicle for them to promote.

Smart TV maker Samsung has already pushed back, and recent messaging from government ministers suggests they could be reluctant to grant any favors to the BBC and its public-sector peers. Bloomberg

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