Attempts to revise the European Union’s controversial Television Without Frontiers directive were thrown into confusion last week when vital talks on a new draft directive were postponed.
European Commission honchos were due to have voted on whether to accept a revised draft of the directive from outgoing European Audiovisual Commissioner Joao de Deus Pinheiro. Acceptance of the draft would have sent it back into the Brussels decision-making system prior to becoming EU law.
The draft, which is hotly contested by Hollywood film and TV program suppliers and most Euro TV networks, included a tightening of broadcasting quotas on non-EU product. Hollywood lobbyists have argued that the Television Without Frontiers directive is against the spirit of free trade because it limits the access that U.S. product has to Euro networks.
The directive is meant to be the cornerstone of EU audiovisual policy but has divided member states: Some countries (like France) favor protectionist quotas, while others (like the U.K. and Germany) support a liberalization of the sector.
On Jan. 4, British commissioner Sir Leon Brittan invoked Article 4 of the Commission regulations which allows a vote to be postponed for one week to allow further consultation.
No vote is expected in the near future, however, as the current Commission has only a few more days in place before a new Commission, headed by Jacques Santer, takes over at the end of January. Brussels insiders were predicting last week that Brittan’s move could delay any agreement on a revised Television Without Frontiers directive for weeks, or months.
Commission insiders admitted last week that the “situation is confused. Opposition to the draft directive seems to be coming from all sides.”
The heart of the problem remains the controversial broadcasting quotas which require networks to program a majority of Euro product “where practicable.” This sentence has been interpreted differently by various countries and was due to be dropped under Pinheiro’s draft proposals. This would have had the effect of tightening broadcast quotas. The move was strongly backed by France but opposed by the U.K. and Germany.
But Pinheiro also suggested that thematic and generalist broadcasters could choose between the broadcast quotas or investment in Euro production.