EU reviews public TV funding as France abolishes ads

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As France moves towards an ad-free public TV model, a revision of state-funding rules for public broadcasters is underway at the European Commission. The EU executive is expected to come up with new proposals in the first half of 2009.

Since yesterday evening (5 January), French TV viewers have been able to enjoy programmes on the main public nationwide channels without the interruption of advertising breaks. The development is the result of reforms announced a year ago, strongly supported by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The overhaul is likely to lead to modified habits for TV watchers. The alterations to prime-time schedules may impact upon preferred dinner times and general “biorhythm”, according to analysts.

But the key aspect of the reform lies in the new funding system. Deprived of advertisement-driven support from the private sector, public channels in France will be heavily dependent on state financing.

Sceptics fear the move will return French television to the era of state-controlled broadcasting. Indeed, CEOs will be nominated by the government under the new rules. 

For their part, private channels are expected to be the first to gain from the reform, which should serve to increase their share of the TV advertising cake.

Supporters of the reform insist that public TV without ads offers a culturally-improved service, free of the yoke of audience-related performances. Losses of advertising revenue were in any case anticipated, although they had been expected to be gradual and caused by steady migration of advertisers towards new media.

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which represents public service television, has backed the notion of a mixed funding system whereby public support is supplemented by private funding. “Scrapping advertising completely is not always the solution,” an EBU official told EURACTIV, at the same time underlining that systems based on a license fee tended “to be more independent and flexible”.

Thus the ad-free model does not appear to be the way forward considering other European national realities. Another cause for concern among public broadcasters is a likely move towards stricter rules on state funding, currently in the Brussels pipeline.

Last November, Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes launched a consultation process aimed at reviewing EU state funding rules for public television. Brussels is convinced that current legislation has many shortfalls and allows for “overcompensation” of public TV channels, which are sometimes subsidised more heavily than necessary. 

The Commission also laments “cross-subsidisation” issues, whereby state-funded broadcasters use public money to launch services which differ from those they are asked to provide, thus potentially violating competition rules. A new communication is expected by mid-2009.

 

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