Julia Lopez – 2024 Speech to the Digital Television Group Summit

The speech made by Julia Lopez, the Media Minister, at King’s Place in London on 9 May 2024.

Thank you very much, Damian and thank you, Richard. It’s really great to be with you this morning, and I think it’s a testament to the reputation of the DTG that so much of the industry is represented here today, particularly on a rail strike day.

Last time I was here I was heavily pregnant and now I’m just extremely tired.

I know there’s a lot of excitement here in this room for the future of television and some anxiety too, and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot during the summit about how new technology like IPTV and generative AI will support that.

I think you’re right to be excited. If leveraged properly and responsibly, new technology offers us the opportunity to take our creativity to the next level – to make things that used to be difficult and frustrating so easy, and the impossible possible.

The UK has the chance to be at the forefront of this technological revolution.

With our world-class digital infrastructure…

…top notch engineers, like you and data scientists…

…and a set of creative industries impatient to innovate.

In her speech to the Royal Television Society last year, the Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer promised to give you the support you need as a sector to navigate this changing world. Not just to survive the current wave of innovation, but to drive the next one.

One advantage of being a joint Minister in both the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is that I get chance to be involved in and drive that support.

So today I want to say a bit more about three of the remaining challenges you’ve told us about; how we as a Government are supporting you in meeting those challenges; and what we’re doing to make sure that audiences are at the heart of our plans for the future of television.

The first challenge is one of uncertainty. Not just the usual worries about which programmes will do well, but a more fundamental challenge about the where, what and why of TV.

The numbers speak for themselves. In the five years from 2017, the reach of broadcast TV fell from 91% to 79%, while the number of households subscribing to a video-on-demand service more than doubled.

And I’ve seen that change in my years as the Media Minister going through the pandemic and seeing the challenges coming out of that.

Of course such disruption isn’t new to this sector. The very existence of the DTG speaks to that, founded to help the industry navigate the arrival of DTT on the scene some thirty years ago.

But it comes at a time of significant financial pressures, particularly for those reliant on TV advertising.

In an industry experiencing near constant change, the important thing is that the sector is able to respond to that.

Too often innovative products and services are held back by self appointed gatekeepers. And I understand the commercial imperatives that many of you are governed by.

But the Government will continue to encourage long term thinking that recognises that, when it comes to innovation in TV, this doesn’t have to be a zero sum game.

Because the sector benefits most when audiences are able to choose the product that works best for them – to vote with their remotes.

I know this challenge is felt particularly acutely by our broadcasters.

You are being asked to serve an ever wide variety in the ways we watch TV. At home, on the go; on the small screen and the big. High end drama and lean back daytime. We as viewers want it all.

So we are pressing ahead with the pro-competitive interventions in both our Digital Markets and Media Bills.

And we will continue to champion, in particular, the vital role that our public service broadcasters play in bringing high quality public service content to our screens.

That’s updating our communications laws for the first time in two decades.

The second challenge is one of outdated and inconsistent regulation.

The message I hear from many of you is that you want a regulatory regime that is both fair but also consistent. One that encourages innovation – but gives audiences the confidence to adopt these new technologies.

To the majority of viewers, TV is TV – and they would expect it to always have the same regulation and protections. But we all know, it doesn’t.

Take, for example, Gordon Ramsey, a man known principally for two things: first being an award winning chef, and second, swearing a lot.

When his show Hell’s Kitchen airs on ITV2, it has to comply with the broadcasting code, and it’s no great shock that ITV chooses to air new episodes after the watershed.

But when ITV puts that previous episodes of the same show on their on-demand service, it doesn’t have to comply with that Code – and you can’t complain to Ofcom if you see something inappropriate.

Thankfully ITV have nevertheless voluntarily put robust audience protection measures in place.

From a compliance perspective, this is already starting to sound complicated. And that’s before we add in internet delivered television, like the Hell’s Kitchen FAST channel, which can be found on some smart TV’s electronic programme guides and broadcasts episodes “round the clock”.

I am not sure everyone in this room, let alone most viewers could say with certainty whether that has to comply with the Broadcasting Code or not.

It doesn’t, by the way – but the Homes under the Hammer FAST channel does.

Updating our regulatory regime to embrace the new ways that content is being delivered is necessarily a long term project.

But I’m pleased to say that we’re addressing two of the most pressing issues: the creation of a new Video-on-demand Code, through the Media Bill, that mainstream VoD services must comply with, and consulting on updating the boundaries of linear regulation by designating additional electronic programme guides.

Together, these changes will give audiences more confidence in adopting new services, and give broadcasters the fair and level playing field they need to ensure that it is the best content that wins out.

So you’ve got good products and robust regulation, but third and finally we need to decide – collectively – on the mechanics.

How will audiences get their TV in the future? And that’s the question I want to turn to now.

It seems clear from everything I’ve heard from the sector over the last year that IPTV is going to be a big part of the way we get our television in the future.

At the heart of that future is a potentially amazing proposition for audiences:

Many more programmes, broadcast in ultra high definition…

…more features, better accessibility, greater personalisation…

…and almost limitless choice, both live and on-demand.

Is it any wonder that next year an estimated 99% of TVs sold will be internet enabled?

As Minister for Digital Infrastructure, I’ve been doing everything I can to ensure that both our fixed and mobile networks are ready for those extra demands that this change will make on them.

I am particularly pleased by the progress made over recent years to roll out gigabit-capable broadband and 5G mobile connectivity across the UK.

Driving the deployment of fixed and wireless broadband is the  centrepiece of the government’s work.

The pace of change is enormous. Working in partnership with industry and Ofcom, our policies have helped us collectively increase coverage of gigabit broadband to 82% – that’s up from just 6% in 2018.

Of course, the opportunity presented by this investment hasn’t gone unnoticed. Both Sky and Virgin have launched subscription-based IP propositions – and they are joined by services like LG Channels, Samsung TV Plus, and – most recently – Freely.

Free to view television, however delivered, is a really important part of our television landscape.

We in Government want to encourage the sector to keep embracing innovation and technological development, but we’re not going to pull the rug from under the devoted audiences of Freeview channels.

That’s why we’ve committed to the future of DTT until 2034.

I know many of you will be interested in what happens at that point. And you’re looking to us to provide the answer.

As the Culture Secretary has said: we will. But it’s not a decision we can or should take in isolation. We have to look at the evidence……not just what is happening now – but to look ahead to ten years’ time…

…not just a simple dichotomy between DTT and IPTV – but the potential to enable audiences to choose between multiple competing platforms, just as they can now…

…and not just what the government can do, but what industry can do as well.

I am very grateful to Ofcom for their early work in this space, and we will be considering the conclusions of their call for evidence carefully.

In parallel we have been working to identify and fill the emerging evidence gaps, by commissioning independent research on this topic.

This is going to be published shortly, demonstrating that many of us are already using internet-based services on our TVs – whether we realise it or not…

… that by 2040, 99% of homes will have an IP enabled TV…

…and that, on current trends, the number of homes without access to IPTV will fall to one and a half million by 2035 – but this still represents 7% of homes.

And as Richard said, we have to make sure that those audiences are not left behind.

Now we in government want to help you take advantage of these changes.

But we also have a responsibility to audiences – to ensure they continue to have access to reliable, free to view television in a format that’s familiar to them.

And the further and faster the transformation, the stronger this responsibility becomes.

So it’s clear we need to do more to understand what drives viewers’ decisions, and how we can help everyone to take advantage of these new technologies.

Giving them not just the tools they need, but a compelling reason to make the leap. And supporting them if they don’t want to.

This is something that industry, government and audiences will need to work together on – to ensure we collectively provide the best answer for your businesses and for the public.

So I can announce today the launch of an audience engagement programme to ensure that audiences are at the heart of our plans.

We will use this to engage audiences directly, understand their needs and preferences and make sure these are reflected as we develop policy.

I want to hear from the sector too.

So we’re going to be creating a new dedicated stakeholder forum, to support this project and ensure industry and audiences come together to deliver on the ambitions I’ve been discussing today.

We hope this will ensure we hear voices from across this industry. We’ll be setting out more detail on both of these in due course.

Because new ways of consuming TV should not come at the expense of those who still enjoy terrestrial television.

I am proud of what we’ve already achieved as a Government.

Connecting more than 80% of homes to gigabit broadband…

…expanding our world-leading creative industry tax reliefs…

…and hopefully, passing a Media Bill – soon, I hope, to be a Media Act – that will protect the mixed ecology that has worked well for the best part of a century…

Setting the platform for an exciting future – with more to come.

It’s a busy agenda and one I am looking forward to working with the DTG and its members on.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the summit today

Thank you very much.