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Television in the digital age: MEPs adopt a new approach to product placement

The Culture Committee backed the directive on audiovisual media services on Monday evening, while also adopting some important amendments.

The draft aims to update the 1997 'Television without Frontiers' rules in line with new developments in audiovisual technology and advertising, particularly the ongoing transition from analogue to digital broadcasting. On the controversial issue of product placement, MEPs chose to permit it only in a limited range of cases. The Commission's proposal is intended to create a level playing field for public and private broadcasters and independent producers. It also aims to widen the scope of the rules to include new media.

By adopting a report by Ruth Hieronymi, MEPs in the Culture Committee broadly supported the Commission's thinking on this principle, but they did not wholly endorse its suggested definition of audiovisual media services: they opted to modify the concepts of "linear services" and "on demand services" in the draft legislation. The former refers to traditional television broadcasting "transmitted... according to a fixed programming schedule", while the latter comprises services such as web TV or video-on-demand -- where the user requests the transmission of a given program "on an individual basis."

In distinguishing between these two categories of audiovisual media services, both the Commission and the Committee have stressed that they are seeking to subject providers of "on demand services" to only a minimum set of rules - linear services, on the other hand, are more thoroughly regulated.

In one of the more controversial areas of the draft directive, the majority of MEPs backed a compromise amendment, which would see product placement prohibited except in a limited range of programs, and then only under strict rules. Product placement would be banned in "news and current affairs programs, programs for children, documentaries [and] advisory programs." Member States could still permit it "in cinematographic works, films and series made for television and sports broadcasts", as well as in "cases of production aid where there is no payment but only provision of certain goods or services for free with a view to their inclusion in a program."

Even where they are allowed, however, programs that feature product placement should never affect "the responsibility and editorial independence" of the broadcaster; nor should they "directly encourage the purchase or rental of goods or services" or give "undue prominence to the product in question"; lastly, viewers should be clearly notified of the existence of product placement in such programs. In addition, as MEPs agreed with the Commission that product placement containing tobacco products or cigarettes (or producers whose principal activity is the manufacture or sale of cigarettes and other tobacco products) should be completely banned.

The Committee voted to limit advertising breaks in "films made for television, cinematographic works, concerts, theatre plays and operas" to "once for each period of 45 minutes" - and not, as the Commission had proposed, every 35 minutes. Children's programming and news programs, MEPs decided, should be interrupted for advertising only once for each period of 30 minutes -- provided that such programs exceed 30 minutes to begin with.

Under the Commission's proposal, Member States would have to ensure that commercials aired by providers under their jurisdiction do not include or incite prejudice or discrimination. MEPs included a number of additional conditions, adding that commercials should not offend on the basis of gender, disability, age or sexual orientation - nor should they "violate human dignity." The report, adopted by a 26 votes in favor to 1 against with no abstentions, is scheduled for a plenary vote during the Parliament's December session in Strasbourg. (EP Press)