New frontier for Euro b'casters

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Plans to overhaul European broadcasting law were confirmed Tuesday by the European Parliament, paving the way for simpler rules for television advertising, product placement and cross-border transmissions.

The Parliament gave its backing to compromise plans hammered out with European Union governments and the European Commission that should be formally adopted in September. EU governments would then have two years to turn the new rules into national law.

The agreement comes four years after the reform process began and 18 months after the EC unveiled detailed plans to revise the broadcasting laws. But even in the past few weeks, changes were still being made as the EU institutions struggled to reach a common position.

The last-minute alterations include strict guidelines on the use of product placement: Not only is it banned from news, current affairs programs, documentaries and children's TV programs, but any program with product placement must display a clear notice about the brand before and after the broadcast as well as before any commercial breaks.

Television advertising breaks in movies, news and children's programs have moved from once every 45 minutes in the initial proposals to once every half-hour. But with the maximum length of advertising per hour remaining at 12 minutes, this will not necessarily mean more ads.

Another key provision is that broadcasters will be bound only by the rules of the country in which they are located — a principle known as "the country of origin." But there will be controls to ensure that this is not being abused, for example, by broadcasters basing themselves in countries where the rules are lax.

The new rules, rechristened the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, will overhaul the EU's 1989 Television Without Frontiers Directive, aiming to bring it in line with technologies such as the Internet and mobile broadcasting.

The Parliament vote was welcomed by the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, which said the new rules are a huge step forward for the EU.

"They should provide legal certainty for broadcasters and help boost the market, particularly in advertising," ACT legal adviser Monika Magyar said. But she warned that, with another two years' wait before the laws are enacted by national governments, the rules could be outdated the moment they come into force. "The pace of technological change is so fast that it is difficult for lawmakers to keep up," she said.

The agreement also was backed by the association of television and radio sales houses (EGTA), which said the new rules ensure that regulation is kept to a minimum and that new audiovisual media services can flourish.

"Viewers will be the first to benefit from such a modernized framework," EGTA secretary general Michel Gregoire said. "Thanks to a properly advertising-funded industry, they will enjoy new services such as mobile television, IPTV or on-demand services and they will still be offered free-of-charge access to diversity programming on television."
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