European Parliament puts television ad regs on spot

Org vows to defeat change to rules

Plans to ease European Union rules on television advertising breaks and product placement could be ruined Monday if European Parliament members fulfill their pledge to defeat any liberalization efforts.

The Parliament's Culture Committee, meeting in Strasbourg, France, is set to vote on the European Commission's December 2005 plans to reform EU broadcasting rules.

The EC's proposed Audiovisual Media Services directive — which would replace 1989's Television Without Frontiers mandate — aims to bring EU's broadcasting rules into the era of the Internet, satellites, mobile phones and other technologies.

But a majority group of largely left-wing Euro-MPs has said it wants to block the proposed advertising changes, claiming they would confuse consumers and lead to a rampant commercialization of television.

The EC's proposed changes would allow advertising breaks in television programs whenever broadcasters choose, rather than every 20 minutes as the 1989 rules demand. A new element is expected to say that films, news, current affairs programs and children's shows would be allowed breaks only after 30 minutes. An upper limit of 12 minutes of advertising per hour would be maintained.

The EC has argued strongly that any restrictions on product placement would be impractical. "The reality is that product placement is everywhere on television and in films," EC spokesman Martin Selmayr said. "You can't put white tape on Coca-Cola or blank the screen when a car comes on."

There are no EU-wide rules on product placement, so it already is used in much of the content broadcast in European countries. The new rules would allow it in all programs except news bulletins, documentaries and children's shows. The EC says the new directive would replace today's patchwork of differing national ones and provide legal certainty for operators.

The EC says product placement should help the European audiovisual industry become more competitive, noting that it already accounts for about 2% of the total advertising revenue of free-to-air broadcasters in the U.S. and grew by an average of 21% per year between 1999 and 2004.

It also insists that Euro-MPs are overreacting to the phenomenon. "So long as it is clearly identified as such at the start of the program, and the editorial independence of the media service provider is guaranteed, there is no reason to ban product placement," Selmayr said.

But the Euro-MPs are backed by Germany, which is the only EU government to call for an outright ban on product placement, saying it wants to keep a strict line between editorial content and advertising to protect consumers. The German government is expected to argue its case Monday. By coincidence, EU audiovisual ministers are meeting in Brussels at the same time as the Euro-MPs to examine the reform plans.