Cordelia

Party Political Broadcasting

A Cordelia report, 26.08.04

1. Summary

  • Digital television means more channels and fragmenting audiences.
  • Digital television makes it easier to escape party political broadcasts.
  • The traditional system of PPB is a waste of time, as it can’t find an audience.
  • Paid-for political broadcasting is not favoured in the UK.
  • How does the PPB system adapt to the multi channel world?
  • The answer is to give political parties public airtime vouchers, which they can spend on any channel they want to use.

Air time vouchers would be given to parties in proportion to their standing with the electorate. Parties would be given an allowance of air vouchers that could be spent as 30 second bites or as a 5 minute lump, allowing them to seek specific demographics and chase the audience by buying time on ITV, Discovery, MTV or any other channel.

2. Introduction

In 1998 the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Neill Committee) claimed that cable and satellite television would ensure that the current rules on party political broadcasts (PPBs) “may soon no longer be relevant.”1 Six years and one general election later, irrelevancy is looming. Digital television threatens to liberate the captive five channel consumer, forcing PPBs to move from a five channel captive audience into competition for attention across the full digital spectrum.

If in the current market PPBs face falling audience what happens in a digitally fragmented one? The PPBs of the 2001 election saw 49% of viewers switch channel rather than watch them, with another 8% turning the TV off altogether2. A Mori poll found 55% of respondents reported having seen at least one PPB in 2001, down from 73% in 97 and 71% in 923. The iTC states that 53% of people describe them as ‘boring’ or ‘dull’4.

Digital television means more choice and more channels to switch to. Even if 43% of your audience don’t switch over you still have them scattered over more channels. So the impact of PPBs is diminishing.

PBBs need to be set free. Currently PPBs are limited to ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, with the BBC and S4C opting to broadcast them. These channels face diminishing reach as fragmentation occurs. For PPBs to be relevant they have to be broadcast where their message will reach as many as possible. This should be balanced with broadcaster’s problems of scheduling disruption and revenue loss caused by PPBs.

PPBs need to be allowed wider presentation options. They shouldn’t just be seen as analogue broadcast phenomena as the purpose of PPBs is to allow parties unrestricted access to the public. This is no longer the sole preserve of television, or radio, now there’s interactive TV, mobile phones and the Internet.

3. The Current System

PPBs come in three shapes, 4 minutes 40 seconds, 3 minutes 40 seconds and 2 minutes 40 seconds. They are allocated to major parties5 by the broadcasting licensee, e.g. ITV, Channel 4 or Channel 5, as part of the public service broadcasting requirements in return for limited analogue spectrum. BBC and S4C carry PPBs out of choice. In practice PPB slots are determined by the Broadcaster’s Liaison Group (BLG), a forum for broadcasting authorities and broadcasters to discuss PPB co-ordination and policy.

4. The Current Problems

PPBs face four difficulties, viewers, political parties, broadcasters, and the potential for legal challenges from the Human Rights Act. We will only raise the first three6:

4.1 Viewer Apathy

PPBs suffer from the current wave of voter apathy7, but few voters want to abolish them. 68% of voters support the party’s rights to specialist broadcasts, but only 58% think they are useful8. They are trapped by conflicting public desires; unable to live or die because public support doesn’t translate into public attention. PPBs remain largely unwatched, and this increases as they reach fewer viewers. How can PPBs engage anyone when channels have a shrinking audience, especially if half the audience left switch over at the first sign of PPBs?

4.2 Political Frustration

Facing uninterested viewers some parties want shorter PPBs. Parties favour the 2 minute slot which “they consider to be more effective as a communications tool. Many parties would like the opportunity to have even shorter broadcasts, noting that short and oft-repeated messages are considered most effective by the advertising industry.”9 The dangers of short broadcasts are the loss of political substance, and that shorter broadcasts require repetition to have impact, increasing demand on broadcaster’s schedules.

4.3 Broadacasting complications

The Electoral Commission10 states that “many broadcasters are resistant to extending the obligation to carry PPBs”, and it is easy to understand their resistance. Broadcasters accept obligations on scarce analogue spectrum, but feel that “there are no grounds for extending obligations to digital, satellite or cable broadcasters.”11 Why should ITV be obliged to carry PPBs on their digital air waves when they are competing against digital competitors i.e. Sky who have no obligation to carry PPBs. The system that worked in analogue is no longer fair in digital.

5. What can be done?

One option is to scrap PPBs, but neither political parties nor the public want this, as noted above.

Politicians find themselves having to resolve the diminishing impact of PPBs with their desire for a direct unfiltered outlet to the public.

5.1 Airtime Vouchers

For PPBs to reach their audience they need to be broadcast where the audience is, but then the question is whether PPBs, a public service broadcasting requirement, should be applied to all channels? If so to what degree and how would that be organised? The Broadcasters Liaison Group would become unwieldy should it have to jump from five channels to five hundred.

One option is to use the existing methods of buying airtime. Television advertising is a ready built system designed to handle air time demand12. However there are dangers if parties are allowed to fund their own paid advertising13, so we do not suggesting that this change.

Instead parties could be given air-time vouchers with a set value, granting each political party a publicly provided advertising budget. This could do away with the Broadcasting Liaison Committee14. A separate independent group could set the budget limits, much as the Electoral Commission currently sets advertising limits for parties. These vouchers would be an extension of public service broadcasting to all networks, each voucher would have a monetary value, as determined by the independent group, but only for the purposes of working out how much airtime the parties can buy. No actual money would be given to the broadcasters. If PPBs are important they are important for every channel, not just the terrestrial ones, and this is a way to spread that PSB requirement.

Armed with their credits parties can buy airtime15 as their budget allows, tailoring their broadcasts to particular demographics if necessary. Airtime vouchers could be used to buy either a 30 second slot or five minutes, depending on how a political party wished to spend its allocation of airtime vouchers.

With this system parties could present relevant information to targeted groups, e.g. advertising environmental policy information during nature shows or on channels such as Discovery, and if PPBs are to reach out to apathetic voters they have to go boldly where no political broadcast has gone before – MTV Bass, and its cousins. Voters are more likely to engage with material relevant to their interests, if PPBs can provide this they present an opportunity to reconnect politics to people.

5.2 The end of special favour

PPBs are seen as special because they are the only place where parties can directly broadcast to the public. This is no longer true. As the digital market encompasses the Internet, digital television and digital radio, the lines between broadcasting blur. Already interactive television provides a limited from of cross-over between the Internet and TV. Anyone who has used the red button on the Olympic broadcasts can see how a 30 second PPB can be a spring board to a much longer informative interactive piece.

PPBs need to be understood in the context of digital signal, rather than analogue broadcasting. PPBs are video clips, and video clips can play over many devices. Digital content’s cross-platform nature means that PPBs don’t need to be limited to minimum lengths. The current time slots are intended to keep PPBs from being mere puff in the shape of political advertising. In a digital interactive world the television PPB is just one of many ways to reach the digital audience, you have the red button, broadband internet, targeted e-mail, 3G video messages, SMS text, let alone the impact that MP4 could have16.

We would observe that it is in these unregulated areas of digital distribution where political parties will be free to push the barriers of paid for political advertising. As a light hearted aside how about political iTunes on your iPod where the parties pay you to download their messages? Underneath this is a serious question – where will we draw the line at an acceptable level of privacy from election material in the digital future?

Political substance through enforced TV broadcast length is no longer necessary; there are other ways to get the message out. Parties have shown that they are adept at changing with the times, they have experimented with guerrilla advertising techniques, including web-games, and text messaging is being used to rally and motivate supporters, PPBs must be understood in the context of the changing media and should be encouraged to adapt in a way can maintain relevance within what is culturally acceptable in the UK.

6. Conclusion

Digital television is not just a problem for PPBs; it offers new chances to re-engage with the electorate through interactive and targeted material. The rise of choice means that people focus on material that is relevant to them.

Airtime vouchers level the playing field across all channels and let political parties play the demographic game in the same way as advertisers and television broadcasters. In the digital world one size does not fit all, and that applies to party political broadcasts.


1 Committee on Standards in Public Life (1988) The Funding of Political Parties in the United Kingdom, London: The Stationery Office, p. 183, section 13-34.
2 p. 19, iTC Election 2001 Viewer’s Responses to the Television Coverage, http://www.ofcom.org.uk/research/consumer_audience_research/tv/tv_audience_reports/election_2001_viewers_rspnc.pdf
3 p. 12, Electoral Commission “Party Political Broadcasting”, Report and Recommendations http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/templates/search/document.cfm/6718
4 p. 19 iTC Election 2001 Viewer’s Responses to the Television Coverage. Figures from the iTC report Election 2001: Viewers’ Response to the Television Coverage. The iTC report was based on a survey of a special broadcast panel of 3000 people. This panel was made of more politically interested viewers than the general population, as 81% of the panel voted vs. 57% national turnout. Given that 57% of a more-interested-than-average panel didn’t watch PPBs it is likely that the actual turn-off rate is higher.
5 Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. Other parties qualify if they field a candidate in at least one-sixth of contested seats in a region.
6 The Electoral Commission raise the problem of legal transparency on p. 16 of its “Party Political Broadcasting” report. It states that the UK ban on paid political advertising runs the risk of the contradicting article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. The case of Vgt Verein gegen Tierfabriken v Switzerland suggests that there needs to be a pressing social need to ban political advertising. This need must be both defensible in substance and also proscribed by law. The Electoral Commission notes that for the UK system to survive scrutiny under the HRA it would need a robust regime of free and unmediated broadcasts, but it doubts that the current system is sufficiently clear, formalised and predictable, as expressed in law to satisfy the human rights requirements. One of the problems is the process of assigning broadcast slots through the BLG.
7 Voter turnout fell to 59.3% in 2001 from 71% in 1997 and 77.7% in 92 – BBC figures from http://news.bbc.co.uk/ and http://news.bbc.co.uk/vote2001/hi/english/newsid_1376000/1376575.stm
8 p. 19-20
9 p. 31, Electoral Commission “Party Political Broadcasting”
10 p. 26, Electoral Commission “Party Political Broadcasting”
11 p. 26, Electoral Commission “Party Political Broadcasting”
12 For channels without advertising, such as the BBC, PPBs present a more difficult problem. A reasonable return for some of their schedule time, or in return for the licence fee (as applicable) would be necessary to determine.
13 p.15 – 16, Electoral Commission “Party Political Broadcasting”
14 This possibly resolves the Electoral Commission’s concern about the BLG’s lack of transparency.
15 In order to ensure the success of the PSB parties could ask for the channel to fulfil their PSB in impacts rather than airtime spent. An impact is an actual number of viewers rather than a percentage by market share. Impacts would return a measurable number of viewers, but potentially make matters more difficult for channels as they would be tied to a particular number of viewers, and may have to re-run PSBs until that figure is achieved.
16 MP4 is a compression standard for digital content including video, but also applicable to a wide range of rich media content.

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