EU OKs broadcast rules overhaul

Product placement, ad interruptions key issues decided

BRUSSELS -- The long-awaited overhaul of European broadcasting law was finally confirmed by EU ministers in Brussels on Thursday, paving the way for looser rules on advertising breaks, product placement and cross-border broadcasts.

The decision, by EU audiovisual ministers, brings a close to an exhaustive debate on the reforms, which aim to bring European broadcasting laws up to date with such new technologies as the Internet, mobile and on-demand services.

Among the rules being changed are those regarding product placement on television in Europe, something which has been severely restricted until now. The final version of the law says that governments will only be able to ban product placement in news, children's programs and documentaries.

The ministers also agreed that, though ads will remain capped at 12 minutes per hour, the frequency of program interruptions will no longer be regulated.

EU Audiovisual and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding said that the rules updating the EU's creaking 1989 Television Without Frontiers directive will help promote European content and spur the developments of new services.

"This important piece of modernizing legislation brings Europe's audiovisual policies into the 21st century, providing a welcome shot in the arm to industry," she said. "It promises less regulation, better financing for European content and higher visibility to Europe's key values, cultural diversity and the protection of minors."

The law will be renamed the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, and covers all media services, regardless of the transmission technology used -- from traditional TV broadcasts to emerging on-demand services.

Other changes include the right for broadcasters to access extracts of important events; improved access for people with visual or hearing disabilities; new rules to protect minors; provisions to promote European works and independent audiovisual productions; and a ban on content that incites religious or racial hatred. It also explicitly encourages industry self-regulation and co-regulation.

However, the reforms will not change the rule that allows broadcasters to be regulated in their EU country of origin rather than in countries where their broadcasts might be received. Reding said this was a cornerstone of European broadcasting law and provides legal certainty for companies mulling cross-border broadcasts.

The agreement was immediately welcomed by the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public broadcasters here.

"This should contribute greatly to the development of Europe's audiovisual landscape and to enable Europe to compete in the digital world," EBU president Fritz Pleitgen said.

It also was applauded by Association of Commercial Television in Europe, which said the new rules were a huge advance from the EU's original 1989 directive.

"With the ever-increasing pace of change in our sector, it's essential that national governments and media regulators implement the text in a flexible, future-proof manner," ACT director general Ross Biggam said.

The directive will take effect before the end of 2007, and EU governments will then have two years to adopt the new rules into national law.