EU rules changes on '07 horizon

Overhaul of aging media directive long in the making

After years of political wrangling, plans to overhaul EU audiovisual and media rules are expected to finally complete their convoluted journey through the European decisionmaking machine by the middle of this year.

Formally unveiled in December 2005, the Audiovisual Media Services directive aims to update the rules for the Internet and wireless age and replace the creaking 1989 Television Without Frontiers directive. But the process to see the new measures adopted by the EU has been arduous, and it will still be months before they are confirmed.

"The proposal will be considered one of the most important pieces of legislation adopted in this five-year legislature," EU Audiovisual Commissioner Viviane Reding told the European Parliament recently.

The proposed changes will allow product placement on European television screens under strict conditions. They also change the frequency of advertising breaks from one every 45 minutes to one every half-hour, with the maximum length of advertising per hour remaining at 12 minutes.

At the end of 2006, both the European Parliament and the EU's national governments agreed to separate versions of the new rules. Under the EU's complex procedures, the commission will now draft a revised proposal, and this will be debated as a "second reading" by MEPs and ministers. If there are still outstanding differences between the two versions, they will then have to hammer out a common text in conciliation before it becomes law.

Ross Biggam, director general of the Association of Commercial Television in Europe, warns that the law could face more hurdles before it is confirmed.

"The Parliament added a few unnecessary amendments to its version," he said. "It said films, TV series, sports programs and entertainment carrying product placement should provide an on-screen message about it at least once every 20 minutes. But viewers will see that as an irritation rather than as a protection."

Beyond the broadcasting package, the EU will dabble in other important media issues this year. One key issue will be mobile broadcasting, with the commission unveiling new policy guidelines in the spring.

Researchers at Informa Telecoms and Media predict there will be 124.8 million broadcast mobile TV users worldwide in 2010, but the EU will be well behind the vanguard of Japan and South Korea. EU officials say critical mass will depend on effective regulation, capacity and spectrum planning.

"At present, the mobile TV sector is trying to select a single technical standard," Finnish Communications Minister Susanna Huovinen said. She lamented the fact that Europe, despite its large base of expertise in mobile telephones, often lags behind the U.S. and Asia in introducing new technological products onto the market.

Another commission paper, slated for October, concerns "media literacy" in the digital age. This will look at how to improve Europeans' ability to access, analyze and evaluate the barrage of media they are now being confronted with on a daily basis.

Commission proposals on violent video games are due in the spring and are expected to include new guidelines for parental advisory warnings and age restrictions.