Parliament OKs retooled media regs

Opens way for more product placement on Euro TV

New rules easing advertising and product placement on European tele- vision screens were confirmed Wednesday by the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.

Euro MPs voted to update EU broadcasting and media rules despite concerns that they could lead to a sharp rise in the number of ads.

The proposals to overhaul the EU's 1989 Television Without Frontiers Directive aim to bring it in line with such technologies as the Internet and mobile broadcasting. The rules will be rechristened the Audiovisual Media Services Directive to reflect the changes in the market.

The most controversial element of the proposals concerns the rules clarifying — for the first time in EU law — that television stations can feature branded products. Although common in the U.S., product placement is banned in many EU countries.

The original plans by EU Media Commissioner Viviane Reding allow product placement under strict conditions, and a deal reached among EU governments last month resulted in a legal formula that will set a blanket ban on product placement within the EU but allow countries to opt out if they wish.

German Euro MP Ruth Hieronymi — who drafted the report — secured the parliament's backing for the compromise, which will allow films, TV series, sports programs and entertainment to carry product-placement advertising provided that viewers are warned in advance and at least once every 20 minutes.

News, current affairs programs, documentaries and children's TV programs will not be allowed to carry product placement.

"It is essential to secure the European tradition of separating editorial content from advertising by clearly demarcating the two," Hieronymi said.

Hieronymi argued that product placement already is a reality in the EU, and that it is better to have some rules than none at all — especially at a time when advertising provides 90% of revenue for Europe's private TV channels and 29% for public channels. Her wording stressed that product placement must not affect "the responsibility and editorial independence" of broadcasters or "directly encourage the purchase or rental of goods or services."

Product placement for tobacco products or cigarettes will be banned, as will medicinal products or treatments available only by prescription. Television advertising and teleshopping will have to be "readily recognizable and distinguishable from editorial content" and kept "quite distinct from other parts of the program service by optical and/or acoustic and/or spatial means."

British Liberal Democrat Sharon Bowles said the vote showed that Europe could keep up with fast-changing technologies.

"This directive is, in part, a response to the recognition that revenue from advertising to traditional media is on a downward slope," she said.

Euro MPs also agreed to change the frequency of advertising breaks from once every 45 minutes to once every half-hour; with the maximum length of advertising per hour remaining 12 minutes, this will not necessarily mean more ads.

They also fell short of backing a total ban on the advertising of junk food to children despite strong lobbying from consumer groups. Instead, they called on national governments to "encourage audiovisual service providers to develop a code of conduct regarding children's programming containing advertising, sponsorship or any marketing of unhealthy and inappropriate foods and drinks such as those high in fat, sugar and salt and of alcoholic beverages."

The parliament now needs to agree on a common text with EU national governments before it becomes law. Reding welcomed the vote and expects a final agreement to be adopted in the first half of next year.
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