Cultural protectionism

Variety editorial

Here they go again.

The French are trying to gather support for the so-called “cultural exception,” the practice whereby a country favors its own movie, music and TV biz by creating subsidies and quotas and thereby protects its local biz from the encroachments of Hollywood.

Such an exception was enshrined in the global free trade agreement of 1994, and is scheduled to be debated again during the current round of talks at the World Trade Organization.

We are far from sold on the idea. The commercial imperative — competing to give consumers what they want — has managed to foster some pretty good product over the years.

Still, the French take this matter quite seriously. Former Vivendi Universal topper Jean Marie Messier found that out when he casually declared the cultural exception dead last year — and sparked a firestorm among his countrymen.

Now the French are going even further. Two weeks ago they hosted cultural orgs from 30 countries to discuss how to push for the adoption of a global convention on cultural diversity by UNESCO. Such a convention would effectively remove culture from the purview of the World Trade Organization.

Even French president Jacques Chirac threw his weight behind the idea, pointing out that “the champions of unlimited trade liberalization are again lining up against those who believe that creative works can not be reduced to the rank of ordinary merchandise.”

We believe that Hollywood should support localism and diversity abroad. In fact, a number of entertainment players — think Sony Pictures Entertainment or Viacom’s MTV — have help fostered such principles by working with creative types in various territories around the world.

But we also think that debating the pros and cons of the cultural exception, and whether, for example, new distribution mechanisms like the Internet should be included under it, should most fittingly take place at the WTO level, where all sides and shades of the issue can be heard.

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