The UK is an attractive base for broadcasting channels targeting other European countries. The domestic market is large, creative skills sets are high, and there is good availability of post-production facilities and satellite uplinks for broadcasters.
Yet, without Europe’s single market, these channels would not be able to operate across Europe. The European Union’s television regulation has consolidated the UK as a major hub for television services. A UK exit from the EU could pose problems for cross-border broadcasters who are based in Britain.
European television regulation began back in the 1980s when signals began to cross borders. Back in 1989, the European Community agreed on the Television Without Frontiers (TWF) Directive under its single market programme. This EU law was strongly supported by the UK under the Thatcher government. It enabled channels to broadcast to other European countries without being subject to local licensing rules. For example, Disney broadcasts to the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria with licenses from the UK regulator, OFCOM.
The UK as a springboard
Many companies relocated or set up headquarters in the UK because the directive enabled them to take advantage of a British base and, at the same time, broadcast abroad. Sky relocated to the UK from Luxembourg in 1990. In 2003, the company launched Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland in 2009. Today, Sky broadcasts to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy and Austria with over 20m customers across Europe and employs 25,000 people in the UK and Ireland. It feeds the downstream sector in content production and hardware supply: the company Pace, which operates out of Salts Mill in Bradford, provides set-top boxes for Sky across Europe.
Sky’s move was followed by the establishment of other companies in the UK in the 1990s including a number of large operators with multi-channel packages such as AMC networks, Disney, Discovery, Turner, Viacom and Viasat. The Modern Times Group (MTG) currently broadcasts 60 channels in 36 countries from the UK. It is the largest commercial operator broadcasting in Scandinavia and the Baltics, and has broadcasting operations in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Russia and the Ukraine.
Former domestic providers such as the BBC and ITV now broadcast and provide programming across Europe. Today, the UK is a base for 1,523 out of 5,141 television channels operating in the EU, 65% of which target other EU countries. Many companies operate channels in different languages simultaneously such as AXN Europe (Sony), Disney, Discovery, National Geographic, Turner (Boomerang, Cartoon Network, TCN, TNT) and Viasat (Modern Times Group). Recent increases in the number of pan-European channels can be seen in entertainment, culture, child, sport and high definition services.
In 2010, Europe’s television directive was updated with the Audiovisual Media Services Directive to include other services, such as video-on-demand and catch-up services over digital terrestrial television, cable, satellite, internet protocol television channels or online. By 2014, 515 of the 2,563 such services on offer in Europe were operating out of the UK representing a 20% share of the market.
Controls on advertising
European broadcast rules mainly focus on advertising. Films, news and children’s programmes are limited to advertising breaks every 30 minutes and no advertising is permitted during religious services. Advertising is limited to 20% of programming time per clock hour and to not more than 12 minutes. European rules also permit teleshopping and product placement in films which used to be banned in the UK.
The UK also applies British rules to programming on top of EU regulation. For example, in the UK, there are strict rules on watersheds for children – meaning violent content can’t be shown before 9pm and alcohol advertising cannot be shown to audiences under the age of 18.
The UK also bans product placement of tobacco, alcohol, gambling, escort services or weapons. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar and medicines and baby milk are also not permitted in product placement. For example, an advert for McDonald’s would not be shown on a UK-based channel showing children’s cartoons.
Change on the horizon
The television directive is expected to be revised within the next two years. If the UK does vote to leave the EU, negotiations are likely to take two years, so the revision of the directive might possibly be decided during the UK presidency of the Council of the EU in 2017.
But the revisions might not be favourable to UK interests. For example, some European states want to introduce exemptions for channels broadcasting “hate speech”. This could be interpreted differently by member states particularly in central and eastern Europe which have historically had stricter interpretations than the UK. There could also be a change in location of regulation based upon editorial control which could affect operators such as MTG or AMC networks which take editorial decisions on programming in other European states.
Another exemption proposed by the Nordic states could introduce local licensing for children’s programming. UK based channels aimed at children could lose their UK licenses as a result which could make the UK less attractive as a base for companies’ operation. Another suggested change could introduce local licensing for children’s programming, making the UK less attractive as a base.
A UK vote to leave the EU might have negative effects on investment and capital flight with the departure of some broadcasters to other EU countries. At the same time, it could shift the forum for Europe-wide agreement on certain aspects of broadcasting policy, perhaps returning them to the Council of Europe, which used to be a key forum for agreement for common rules prior to 1989.
This article is co-published with the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.