The Broadcasting Act 1990 is a law of the British parliament, often regarded by both its supporters and its critics as a quintessential example of Thatcherism. The aim of the Act was to reform the entire structure of British broadcasting; British television, in particular, had earlier been described by Margaret Thatcher as "the last bastion of restrictive practices". The act came about after the finding from the Peacock Committee.
It led directly to the abolition of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and its replacement with the Independent Television Commission and Radio Authority (both themselves now replaced by Ofcom), which were given the remit of regulating with a "lighter touch" and did not have such strong powers as the IBA; some referred to this as "deregulation". The ITC also began regulating non-terrestrial channels, whereas the IBA had only regulated ITV, Channel 4 and British Satellite Broadcasting; the ITC thus took over the responsibilities of the Cable Authority which had regulated the early non-terrestrial channels, which were only available to a very small audience in the 1980s.
An effect of this Act was that, in the letter of the law, the television or radio companies rather than the regulator became the broadcasters, as had been the case in the early (1955–1964) era of the Independent Television Authority when it had fewer regulatory powers than it would later assume.
In television, the Act allowed for the creation of a fifth analogue terrestrial television channel in the UK, which turned out to be Channel 5, and the growth of multichannel satellite television. It also stipulated that the BBC, which had previously produced the vast majority of its television programming in-house, was now obliged to source at least 25% of its output from independent production companies.
The act has sometimes been described, both as praise and as criticism, as a key enabling force for Rupert Murdoch's ambitions in Britain. It reformed the system of awarding ITV franchises, which proved controversial when Thames Television was replaced by Carlton Television, for what some felt were political reasons (see Death on the Rock), and when TV-am, admired by Mrs Thatcher for its management's defiance of the trade unions, lost its franchise to GMTV (the now-former Prime Minister personally apologised to the senior TV-am executive Bruce Gyngell). It also allowed companies holding ITV franchises to merge with each other starting in 1994, beginning the process which eventually led to all franchises in England and Wales coming under the control of ITV plc in 2004.
In radio, it allowed for the launch of three Independent National Radio stations, two of them on medium wave using frequencies formerly used by the BBC, and the other on FM using frequencies formerly used by the emergency services. It set out plans for many more local and regional commercial radio stations, generally using parts of the FM band not previously used for broadcasting, which have since come to fruition. Its plans for expanding community radio were only really developed in the 2000s.
The Act passed through Parliament despite opposition from much of the Labour Party and from some members of the ruling Conservative Party, who saw it as representative of a decline in standards, and on occasions saw it as enabling what was, for them, an unwelcome Americanisation. Notably, Douglas Hurd has since criticised the Act's after-effects, describing it as "one of the less successful reforms of those years". These Conservatives would have described their position as paternalistic as a term of praise, while supporters of the Act would use it against them as a term of abuse. During Tony Blair's tenure as leader, the Labour Party's broadcasting policy generally shifted much more towards that expounded in the Act.
The then Home Secretary, David Waddington, described the Act as heralding "a massive expansion in choice", and supporters of the multichannel age in British broadcasting have praised the Act, and later regulation influenced by it, for such reasons. Supporters of the previous, more regulated system have strongly criticised the Act, and some have blamed it for what they see as a "dumbing down" of British television and radio. Like many other reforms of the Thatcher years, it has a tendency to polarise opinion very strongly. One initially less-obvious effect of the Act was that technical standards ceased to be monitored & enforced by the regulatory body along with the programme content.