U.S. Quota Complaints Latest ITC Bid Obstacle

The regulating Independent Television Commission, already behind schedule for the auction of commercial tv franchises, could be further hampered by U.S. government complaints about planned program quotas for commercial television.

U.S. trade officials have objected to an ITC proposal that holders of new ITV franchises (which start in 1993) must reserve at least 75% of airtime for material produced in the European Community. The U.S. says a formal quota runs counter to General Agreement and Trade & Tariffs and restricts international trade.

An ITC spokesperson described the U.S. complaint as “the main outstanding area” delaying the advertisement of new ITV franchises. The issue became problematic because, for the first time, a quota was included in a formal licensing process, she said.

Referred to Home Office

The ITC has referred the complaint to the Home Office, the government ministry that regulates broadcasting. However, a Home Office spokesman said, “Whether it’s up to us or up to the ITC, I don’t know. It’s something we are looking at.”

In last year’s broadcasting act, the government called on commercial tv companies to reserve a “proper proportion” of airtime for European programming. As in previous legislation, exact interpretation of that ruling was left to the tv regulating body.

Ironically, the suggested 75% quota superficially appears an improvement on the previous figure of 86%. However, ITV acquisition execs say that because several previous exemptions (covering sports, docus, etc.) have been discarded, the new quota actually could reduce non-EC programming on British tv.

One ITV exec said that even if all quotas were removed, ITV companies would be unlikely to import more foreign (mostly U.S. and Australian) fare. “The current quota roughly represents the sort of mix of programming we would want to transmit in any case,” he said.

GATT negotiations

The current complaint comes at a time when the U.S. and Europe are at loggerheads over GATT negotiations. One issue under debate is whether tv material should be defined as a product (and therefore subject to GATT free market rules) or a service (and therefore exempt).

The U.S. complaint about proposed U.K. quotas follows fierce criticism of foreign program restrictions contained in the EC’s 1989 directive on broadcasting.

The directive, considerably watered down in its final form after objections from the U.K. and other EC countries, requires broadcasters to reserve a majority of airtime “where practicable” for European programs. The directive allows broadcasters to impose stricter quotas if required.

‘Light-touch’ regs

According to Harlan Moen, head of the Motion Picture Export Assn. of America in London, the U.S. complaint should be seen in the context of the British government’s oft-stated aim that the new broadcasting act would introduce a new “light-touch” regulatory environment providing viewers with greater choice. Per exec, the ITC quotas do nothing to further that aim.

The ITC proposals, published as part of a guideline for those intending to bid for new ITV franchises, are still in draft form and open to modification.

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