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Netflix could pull shows in UK over proposed Media Bill

The proposal would allow British regulator Ofcom to impose financial penalties for offensive or harmful content on streaming services.

The proposal would allow British regulator Ofcom to impose financial penalties for offensive or harmful content on streaming services.

A smart television set running the Netflix application.
A smart television set running the Netflix application. (Stock image via Pixabay, Graphic by The Desk)

Netflix is warning lawmakers in Britain that it may be forced to purge a number of movies and TV shows if they pass a proposal that imposes stronger regulations on streaming services.

On Tuesday, a Netflix executive was one of several representing major streaming services to appear before Members of Parliament who are debating the Media Bill, a proposal that would allow regulators in the United Kingdom to penalize streaming services if they make indecent or harmful content available to viewers.

Ofcom, the British equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), currently regulates public and commercial broadcasters like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, and is able to impose financial penalties if they air indecent, obscene, racist or impartial content that generates viewer complaints. But those same standards don’t currently apply to streaming services like Netflix, Amazon’s Prime Video and Disney Plus.

Broadcasters in the U.K. have long complained that allowing streaming services to flout obscenity and harmful content laws puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Those complaints have grown louder as streaming services begin to chip away at revenue sources that broadcasters depend upon, following similar trends in the United States.

Related: British lawmakers set to question Netflix, others over Media Bill

On Tuesday, Netflix Senior Director of Public Policy Benjamin King testified that the streaming service offers a wide variety of content, including shows and movies that are acceptable in some markets, but not in others.

If the Media Bill were to pass, Netflix and other streaming services would have just 180 days to familiarize themselves with Ofcom’s regulations, and update their library accordingly, something King said was not enough time. To make matters worse, Ofcom’s strong rules could have a chilling effect on creative efforts at Netflix because producers and executives would need to work through Ofcom’s rules, King warned.

“[It will] set a new high watermark for content standards globally, and that will mean creative execs and production councils around the world will need to be familiar with the Ofcom code,” King said. The end result could be that Netflix turns down shows and movies that would fare well in some regions like the United States and Canada, where content restrictions are somewhat looser, simply to appease global business interests in the U.K. and elsewhere.

“It’s ultimately impossible to see whether this approach will be discriminatory or future-proof,” King complained. “I worry that this will create perverse incentives for smaller services to avoid a regulatory threshold.”

Anna Hatfield, a public policy manager for Amazon, echoed his concerns, but said the streaming service would be open to “evidence-based policy” that weighs its business needs with the desire to shield streamers in the United Kingdom from harmful material.

“It’s important we have the appropriate scrutiny whether by parliament, government or Ofcom,” Hatfield said.

At the moment, the Media Bill would only apply to so-called “Tier 1” streamers, which would include most direct-to-consumer streaming services like Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, Peacock, Paramount Plus and Britbox. Platforms like YouTube and Pluto TV that offer user-generated or aggregated content wouldn’t necessarily fall under the Media Bill, though amendments could be made to include these services at a later date.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).