Ofcom’s Broadcast Code Review

Sometime towards the end of the year, Ofcom should be reporting back on some changes it’s making to its Broadcast Code – the document that legislates what television and radio broadcasters are allowed to do on air.
The big news on the day it comes out will undoubtedly surround Product Placement on television. Will Simon Cowell et al have brand Coca Cola glasses on their desk in the next series of X-Factor? Will your favourite soap characters start drinking Stella Artois Black? Who knows. In the short term, we’ll find out what broadcasters can do, and then later on find out what they actually decide to do.
In radio, there are also likely to be substantial changes.
[Pause for a moment while I dash off to touch wood] To get an idea of what it might mean for radio, it’s instructive to go away and have a look at the final page of Ofcom’s radio consultation document. Ofcom outlined four different Options, starting with what we have today, and moving into what we might have. That page is indicative of what broadcasters can do.
Stephen Martin blogged about this subject the other day, and included a demo created by Alex Baker of Kerrang! which illustrated how the changes could sound.
And therein lies the decisions that radio executives will have to make in the early part of next year. It really is worth listening to that bit of audio. Go on. I’ll wait.
Overall it sounds pretty good – and pretty reasonable. There’s an oft-quoted example of radio stations not being allowed to run competitions to win a trip to the set of Harry Potter by asking competition questions about Harry Potter. At Absolute Radio, we’ve run into the same issues when promoting a James Bond film. Quiz questions couldn’t be about the film franchise, because that would give undue prominance to James Bond, and we’re not allowed to do that. This, despite the fact that the competition is only being run because the film distributor concerned has paid the station to promote the new film.
Anyway, back to that audio.
It’s all pretty standard until Baker says, “I was lucky enough to see an advance screening of the film, and it’s absolutely hilarious” when talking about the film Burke and Hare. Remember, this is a dummy piece of copy, and this didn’t air. But it’s the sort of thing a film company might like a DJ to say.
Now I’ve not seen Burke and Hare. It might be the comedy film of the year. I have my suspicions otherwise, but if it is a very funny film, then great. But just suppose it’s not: despite a top-class cast and a director who’s made some wonderful films in the past. Suppose this film sucks. Badly.
If a DJ at the station tells listeners that it’s “hilarious” and it really isn’t, how are listeners to respond?
And what damage does it do to that DJ’s credibility?
Yes films are always personal taste. You wouldn’t get me into a cinema to watch a Twilight or Harry Potter film, but I understand that millions love these film series. Films, books, music and the arts in general will never find universal agreement. But if a film’s really bad, and a DJ at your station says it’s good, where does it leave us?
To lesser or greater extents, we’re going to have to fight to maintain credibility with listeners. On the one hand, commercial stations are just that – there to make a profit. On the other hand, radio is a very personal medium. Survey after survey shows it to be one of the most trusted mediums. That’s we give up at our peril.
I should say that these proposed changes mean much more than just DJs saying giving personal testimonies about products. The term “Product Placement” shouldn’t even apply to radio, since it’s a visual thing and is largely only relevant to television. I don’t believe that listeners will hear anything too different on-air. There might be a few more outside broadcasts from locations that have paid to have the radio station’s presence there. Some advertising will be more seamlessly embedded into radio stations’ outputs. But overall, I don’t anticipate radio sounding enormously different.
The classes of products that are allowed to be advertised are unlikely to change. It’ll just be that some of the “harder edges” between where editorial stops and advertising starts will be smoothed off. But the proof will be in the pudding. And these only remain proposals until Ofcom publishes its new code. So we do still need to wait and see.
[As ever. these are my own personal views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of my employer. That said, I’ve raised exactly the same points there!]