Thursday, December 15, 2005

Europe's "Television Without Frontiers": development hell?

The EU’s Television Without Frontiers Directive is not the stuff of novels. Yet its implications for movies, television – and therefore writers – is considerable. Pyrrhus Mercouris of the FSE (Federation of Scriptwriters in Europe) gave a quick overview of the ongoing review of the Directive to members of Belgium’s Association des ScĂ©naristes de l’Audiovisuel recently.

The Directive’s goal is to harmonise legislation governing the very diverse TV sector in Europe. With the EU’s complex web of private and public channels, languages, legislation and copyright issues, finding some sort of common ground was never easy. The original Directive was adopted in 1989, amended in 1997 with a new draft Directive soon to be announced.

One of the key elements of the existing Directive is its encouragement of the production of European audiovisual works. For TV channels, this meant the obligation to show 50% European content. Yet a review has shown that very few channels respect the quota. “And some people were surprised to find that weather forecasts were being counted as European productions,” notes Mercouris. A significant part of the problem is that Margaret Thatcher managed to add a proviso to the Directive that it would be applied, “where appropriate”.

Canada and more recently Australia opted for a deregulated approach to the audiovisual sector. Consequently, Australia only shows about 9% local production. The age of hits such as “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” is over.

Some countries, such as Ireland and Belgium, are very heavily “penetrated” by other countries’ television. Ireland feels that it simply cannot compete with the massive budgets of the BBC, making it impossible for it to meet the quota of 50%. Other countries are looking to exert more control over incoming advertising and broadcasts that specifically target a country despite being located outside its jurisdiction.

Looking ahead, the FES would like the Directive to be extended to the web, given that telcos are already preparing for Internet and mobile phone broadcasts. DRM gives them the means of controlling the use of their files. Nothing, however, guarantees that the relevant creators will see any of this new revenue.

Harmonisation would provide a clearer framework. Currently, authors’ rights are paid differently in the EU, with Ireland’s independent sector singled out for its particularly bad treatment of scriptwriters. Across Europe, writers complain of the difficulty of getting payment for their work despite being at the basis of many of the works. This makes a good case for maintaining the payment of authors rights on broadcasts.

"No internal market"
Strangely, the debate on film and TV is lumped with the information technology sectors rather than culture at the EU level. This means the priorities are sometimes more economic than cultural, with issues being discussed in terms of the internal market. “There is no internal market in film and TV,” says Mercouris. “Research shows that Europeans like to watch locally produced material at prime time. But there is very little being shown from other European countries. On the other hand, US shows that cost $6 million to produce are being sold off for $100,000 in some countries.” Needless to say, local productions in smaller East European countries and Greece cannot compete.

Negotiations are ongoing.

The FSE was created in 2001, and represents 4,500 writers from 14 countries. Writer guilds from three further countries, Sweden, Finland and Turkey, are currently considering joining. To find out more about the Television Without Borders Directive, see the European Parliament site.

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