The EU executive – Europe’s competition watchdog – said it would examine whether licensing provisions prevented broadcasters from providing services across borders, for example by refusing potential subscribers from other EU member states or blocking cross-border access to their services.
The EU is focusing on agreements between studios including Twenty-First Century Fox, Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, NBC Universal and Paramount Pictures and European pay-TV broadcasters such as Britain's BSkyB, France's Canal Plus, Germany's Sky Deutschland, Sky Italia of Italy and DTS of Spain.
Audiovisual content, such as popular films, is licensed by the US film studios to pay-TV broadcasters on an exclusive and territorial basis, typically to a single pay-TV broadcaster in each EU member state.
The Commission will look at whether provisions of licensing arrangements for broadcasting by satellite or through online streaming between US film studios and the major European broadcasters, which grant the broadcasters "absolute territorial protection", may infringe EU antitrust rules barring anti-competitive agreements.
"I want to be clear on one point," said the Joaquin Almunia, the EU's competition commissioner. "We are not calling into question the possibility to grant licenses on a territorial basis, or trying to oblige studios to sell rights on a pan-European basis."
"Rather, our investigation will focus on restrictions that prevent the selling of the content in response to unsolicited requests from viewers located in other member states - the so-called 'passive sales' - or to existing subscribers who move or travel abroad," he said in a statement.
There is no legal deadline to complete inquiries into anti-competitive conduct.