Yesterday a new European regulator’s group was launched in Brussels. This creates for the audiovisual media sector a pan-European body similar to those that exist for telecommunications and spectrum. Monica Arino, Director of International Affairs at Ofcom explains why the group was formed and what it will do.
On the 3rd of February, the European Commission announced the creation of a new European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA). This initiative comes against a background of discussions amongst regulators themselves, on the need for greater senior level cooperation to collectively contribute to European policy developments in this sector. The European Commission had also previously explored the possibility of creating such a group, as part of its consultation on the independence of regulatory authorities, and in November, the Council of the European Union invited Member States and the Commission to strengthen the independence and cooperation between regulatory authorities in this field.
ERGA held its launch meeting on the 4th of March, elected a new chair (Mr. Olivier Shrameck, currently President of the French regulator, the CSA) and two vice-chairs (Mr. Jan Dworak, President of the Polish regulator KRRiT and Ms Madeleine de Cock Buning, President of the Dutch regulator CvdM) and adopted its rules of procedure. The group has been set up with two main purposes in mind: first, to advise and assist the Commission in its work to ensure a consistent implementation of the content regulatory framework, in particular the AVMS Directive; and second, to provide for an exchange of information, experience and good practice. It will complement the work of the Contact Committee (composed of Member States governments) and that of other cooperation networks, most notably the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities (“EPRA”), a wider and independent group of 52 broadcast regulators from across Europe, which has been in existence for almost 20 years (Ofcom is a Board member and very active in the EPRA activities).
Reactions have been mixed – some governments and regulators maintain a degree of scepticism on the need for this group, given other platforms, while some have expressed concerns about the level of resources that an effective functioning of the group will require, given many are already stretched in their international work. There are also different views on whether, and how far, the group should stray into policy development, as opposed to concentrating on issues of implementation of the current rules, which are core to the regulators’ duties.
Ofcom has warmly welcomed the creation of this group – we see it as particularly timely, given the Commission is planning to embark on a review of the AVMS next year, which could lead to a revision of the rules in due course. Previous cooperation networks for EU audiovisual regulators such as EPRA, while very valuable to facilitate the exchange of information between regulators, offered no formal arrangements for reaching common positions or speaking with one voice in European policy debates. We believe the regulators’ collective experience can make a valuable contribution to any consideration of future legislative reform.
Co-ordinating on convergence
Indeed, as evidenced by responses to the Commission’s Green Paper on “Preparing for a Fully Converged Audiovisual World: Growth, Creation and Value”, there are some issues that will inevitably require as co-ordinated an approach as possible, especially in an environment where content is primarily IP delivered. This is the case, for example, in the area of protection of minors – and audiences more generally – when it comes to content originating in non-EU countries. Other areas of interest include looking at the asymmetries between the regulation of linear TV and video-on-demand content, for example around advertising, as well as considering evolving consumer expectations and changes in the audiovisual value chain leading to the emergence of new players, that may change the balance of power between traditional and new gateways.
If the group is to be successful, it will need to adopt a work programme that addresses these strategic questions (the discussions on this have just started). It will also be important to ensure that the work of the group remains independent, and that it is transparent and open to all stakeholders, so that a meaningful dialogue can be established – avoiding the risk of regulators working away in a vacuum, detached of market realities.
‘Reality check’ on EU and national action
Similar advisory expert groups, albeit with slightly different powers and prerogatives, already exist in other areas of the communications sector such as electronic communications (BEREC), radio spectrum (RSPG), and postal services (ERGP), with the aim to promote the harmonisation and consistency of regulatory approaches across the EU (Ofcom actively participates in all of these). Such regulatory coordination at the European level has been, and will continue to be an important tool not only to exploit the benefits of the single market, but also, and critically, to provide for a healthy “reality” check and counter balance to EU action in cases where a degree of national discretion may be necessary, thereby ensuring that regulators and the Commission are disciplined in their interactions with one another.
To date, the absence of an equivalent for audiovisual has been somewhat striking, even if, admittedly, EU rules in this area are only harmonised at a minimum level – and Member States can, and indeed have, gone beyond this minimum in national implementation. As a result, there is a greater variance of rules between EU countries, each subject to specific (and sometimes conflicting) cultural angles. One of the challenges will be therefore the development of meaningful common positions, particularly in those areas which have historically been controversial, such as country of origin, or where standards of protection differ significantly across countries. The contribution that this group is ready to make to the debate on a potentially new European regulatory framework for content will be a major test in this respect.
This article gives the views of the authors, and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics.