Ofcom in the UK has various responsibilities under the Communications Act, but one of them is dealing with broadcasting complaints (the equivalent under current Irish law is the Broadcasting Complaints Commission). Decisions are released in a regular Broadcast Bulletin; today is issue 101 and it includes a very interesting case – not just for what it’s about but also for some of the comments made by Ofcom.

Complaints were made against sumo.tv, “a website and TV channel to showcase the best in User Generated Content and to share the revenue earned from user submissions with the people who actually make the content”. It’s the TV bit that they’re dealing with of course.

In the first clip, a gentleman (who apparently looked young but was actually a grown-up (‘adult’ seems a bit stretched!) “performed a rap, which included a steady stream of the strongest language and graphic sexual references and which lasted over three minutes” and the second “appeared to be a mobile phone video of an adult frightening a young child (approximately five years old)”.

Ofcom noted that the Broadcasting Code applies to all broadcast content without reference to origin. On the other hand, it was noted that:

Ofcom acknowledges and welcomes the fact that, to some extent, user-generated content provides opportunities for a more interactive experience for viewers and listeners, offering the ability to contribute more to programming than was previously possible

but reaffirms that it is the responsibility of the broadcaster to comply with the Code. They note that while there is a certain hands-offness when it comes to content submitted to the website, “when such material is subsequently considered for broadcast, the broadcaster needs to be mindful of the appropriate Rules”. The two clips mentioned are found to violate the Code – i.e. they shouldn’t have been broadcast.

It gets really interesting, though, towards the end, where Ofcom decides to take a look at the Sumo FAQs. They find that Sumo’s terms don’t satisfy them as to things such as consents, and take a particularly dim view of the outsourcing of compliance requirements:

The broadcaster appears to place the onus of ensuring any material broadcast is compliant with the Code on suppliers such as the general public. Sumo TV also appears to be unreasonably reliant on its terms and conditions, seemingly at the expense of appropriate compliance processes.

This is important; a general note is attached to the decision – a statement of the obvious, perhaps, but the fact that it was necessary is an indication of the divergence in views between the regulator and some parts of the industry. I’ve emphasised the key bits:

Ofcom is concerned that some channels broadcasting considerable amounts of user-generated content may attempt to place too much responsibility for ensuring compliance with the Code with the individual user, and not perform sufficient checks themselves. Responsibility for compliance with the Code always remains with the broadcaster. Proportionate but robust pre-broadcast checks may impose extra costs on the broadcaster, and limit the amount of user-generated content it can air. However, it is clearly important to ensure that people aged under eighteen are appropriately protected, and that individuals appearing in items are not unjustly or unfairly treated or have their privacy unwarrantably infringed. Ofcom therefore reminds licensees who broadcast user-generated content of their responsibilities to ensure full compliance with the Code, and in particular with the sections in respect of Protecting the Under Eighteens, Harm and Offence, and the Fairness and Privacy.
Broadcasters need to be aware that simply because material is available on the web, this does not mean that it is automatically suitable for broadcast on a licensed service which has to comply with the standards as set out in the Communications Act.