The BBC’s recent proposal to incorporate advertisements into its podcasts has been met with significant opposition from several of the UK's prominent media organisations.

Under the proposal, BBC podcasts distributed on third-party platforms such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts will soon contain promotional content. In its annual plan released in March, BBC Studios noted that “adverts are the norm” on commercial platforms and outlined the primary goal for the move will be to “generate more revenue to support the BBC, licence fee payers, [its] suppliers and rights holders”. 

The proposed plan involves introducing advertisements to smaller podcasts distributed on third-party platforms in late 2024, with the potential expansion to top-ranking podcasts such as ‘Desert Island Discs’ if successful. However, the BBC’s own distribution platform, BBC Sounds – which operates under a Charter prohibiting the BBC from carrying advertisements or sponsored programs on its domestic services to maintain its role as a publicly funded entity – will remain ad-free. This will allow audiences to access the same BBC audio content without promotional interruptions via the BBC Sounds app and online channels.

The BBC's ambition for a smooth transition into the realm of advertising (and the promise of additional lip-smacking funds for the BBC coffers) has been curtailed by an outcry of scepticism from the wider sector. A coalition of 20 companies – including Sky, ITV, Goalhanger Podcasts, The Telegraph and The Guardian – have expressed their concerns through an open letter to the Culture Secretary, describing the potential impact on the media industry as "disastrous".

While acknowledging the need for the BBC and government to explore alternative funding sources as the current license fee period concludes in 2027, the letter criticises the BBC's strategy as an attempt to introduce substantial changes "by stealth." The signatories argue that the BBC’s approach would provide it with an unfair competitive edge over other privately-owned podcasts, potentially driving more listeners to the BBC Sounds app while the BBC would then continue to reap advertising revenue from external platforms. The fear of the BBC gaining monopolistic control in the podcasting domain is underscored by the disparity between the estimated £76 million value of podcast advertising in 2022 and the BBC’s funding income of £5.7 billion.

The letter further reminds the BBC of its role and responsibilities as a public-funded company, noting that it “has vast funds to create content for its audiences and is not driven by commercial success, but instead by a mandate to act in the public interest, to inform, educate and entertain”. With fears that small, independent podcast producers will face the brunt of the impact, the signatories have called for Ofcom to conduct a review of the podcast market. Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio, supports this, with its CEO noting “Audiences do not expect advertising around BBC content, which they have already paid for through the licence fee”. 

Despite the substantial opposition, neither Ofcom nor the UK government has intervened on the matter thus far. Whether the BBC can (or will) implement its proposal remains to be seen, particularly with a potential change of government in July, but it certainly raises some interesting questions when squared against the BBC's public service mandate to prioritise informing, educating and entertaining the public without commercial pressures from external sponsors. The Charter governing the BBC’s media activities aims to preserve the BBC’s editorial independence and its capacity to provide unbiased content, distinguishing it from commercially funded broadcasters​, which could be brought under serious scrutiny if the BBC begins financially benefiting from third party podcast sponsorship on third-party platforms as planned.

Finally, should the BBC press ahead with its controversial plans to introduce podcast advertising, it will also need to ensure compliance with the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) new guidance on labelling advertisements in podcasts, effective from August 2024. The expectation is that all advertisements in podcasts must be “obviously identifiable”, using clear terms like “sponsored” or “paid-for advertisements”, together with sound effects or musical cues to distinguish ads from the surrounding content. The ASA's 2022 Huel ruling sets a clear precedent for the application of the "obviously identifiable" standard, which the BBC would be prudent to follow in the interest of avoiding the ire of the ASA (unlike Stephen Bartlett).