Letter from Strasbourg

Forget the missile attacks on the US Embassy, overlook the debate on Article 16 of the Constitution, ignore bank takeover activities hitting the Athens stock market – this time it’s important. It’s about something you really care about: It’s TV. Not television as you know it, but the future of television plus the new media over the Internet. As the stage of the State Theater of Strasbourg presented hellfire with the epilogue of Max Frisch’s play, written around 1958, «Biederman and the Arsonists» – an allegory about complacency in dangerous situations – the Euro Parliament adopted changes to EU television rules. The most important changes adopted were the following: The scope of the directive is widened to cover all audiovisual media services. Consequently, the directive’s colloquial name will in the future be «Audiovisual without Frontiers.» Non-TV audiovisual services, including so-called non-linear or on-demand services, will be made subject to some content regulation, including an obligation to promote European content. Product placement – the placing of branded goods in TV productions, paid for by advertisers – will be allowed in Europe. TV producers must make clear «at the start and the end of the program and by a signal at least every 20 minutes during the program» when products have been placed in their productions. No product placement can take place in news, current affairs programs, documentaries or on children’s TV. TV broadcasts can be interrupted by advertising every 30 minutes instead of every 45 minutes under the present rules. Now it would seem that nothing is final yet. Good old bureaucracy as we know it so well in Greece is reigning in Strasbourg and Brussels as well. Now the directive will once more go back to the Council of Ministers in Brussels, it will be returned to Strasbourg and, if everyone finally agrees, countries will be given two – or more – years to implement it as national law. The Television without Frontiers Directive has been thought to be the main EU legislative instrument on broadcasting, and until now it has set minimum standards on areas such as advertising and the protection of minors. It is a single market directive, enabling the free movement of television services across frontiers within the EU. The directive was originally negotiated in 1989 and had been revised once before in 1997. Now under the Commission’s proposal, new rules on advertising have been suggested. The committee – with two Greek MEPs participating on it, Manolis Mavromatis and Nikolaos Vakalis, both belong to the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) – voted to limit advertising breaks in «films made for television, cinematographic works, concerts, theater plays and operas,» as it is significantly noted, to «once for each period of 45 minutes» and not as the Commission had proposed, every 35 minutes. There is also a «no-tolerance-for-intolerance» clause in commercials. Member states would have to ensure that commercials aired by providers under their jurisdiction do not include or incite prejudice or discrimination. However, not everything seems to be so pure-hearted. An amendment to ban the advertising of junk food (that is, foods high in fat, sugar or salt) to children was solemnly watered down. Quite understandably, not everyone was as satisfied as the Parliament’s rapporteur, German MEP Ruth Hieronymi, who called the vote «a real success.» The Socialist group commented: «We deplore this real risk of a shift toward American-style television.» And the Greens declared: «This decision to introduce American-style advertising rules under an EU ethical label will lead to the greater commercialization of audiovisual media in the EU.» Plus the BEUC, the European consumer organization, which warned: «Unfortunately, this is not the landscape that consumers want. It would mean more advertising on TV, including hidden advertising in the form of product placement.» Whatever. The possibilities of banning, say the advertisement of a book, on the imprecise grounds that it will corrupt minors’ morals (themselves ill-defined) are endless and alarming. It’s only reasonable that this – thank God, not final yet – directive has been controversial. There are plausible fears that the Commission in Brussels is trying to extend its powers to the traditionally less-regulated aspects of the Internet. Brussels has always a significant (or signifying) influence on a number of members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But that is another long and sad story. As for now, there are online gaming companies that fear they could be caught up in the new rules, and the same goes to publishers of blogs and other «non-commercial» publishers, such as video sites. «Now that everything has been pretty much decided, cases of over-regulation, as this one here,» a British journalist tells me «may force companies to relocate outside the EU. Your Greek TV companies, for instance, could easily move elsewhere. Say to Albania, Turkey or FYROM. They won’t be joining our club as soon as they think!»

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