‘The thought is unbearable’: Europeans react to EU plans to cut British TV
EU media critics say post-Brexit plans could pave way for more homegrown content
Kate Connolly in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome, Jon Henley in Paris, Helena Smith in Athens and Sam Jones in Madrid
Fri 25 Jun 2021 18.17 BST
It was during a trip to Brighton for an English language course in 1984 that the young German student Nicola Neumann first discovered British television.
“The elderly couple who put me up tried really hard to educate me further, so we’d sit in front of the telly together every evening and then talk about the programmes afterwards,” she said.
She remembers watching news bulletins, EastEnders, Coronation Street, and ‘Allo ‘Allo! – and every Friday night without fail, a crime drama.
“I was hooked,” she said. “Since then I’ve not been able to imagine my life without British TV and film. I like the quality, the tone, the humour, the way it has taught me to express myself in colloquial English. For me it’s been an education over three decades.”
On her return to Germany, Neumann continued to get her “fix” through videos and episodes of programmes such as All Creatures Great and Small, and Upstairs, Downstairs, which aired on television – albeit dubbed into German – in Bavaria, where she grew up. More recently, said Neumann, who is a bookseller from Erlangen, it has mainly been streaming services and YouTube which have helped feed her craving.
So when it was reported earlier this week that the EU was preparing to act against the “disproportionate” amount of British television and film shown in Europe after Brexit she said she was “furious”.
“Some of us are still reeling from the shock of the Brexit referendum. We’ve thought about the consequences of things like freedom of movement, import duty, or fishing, perhaps, but this is one of the things we had not paid attention to.
“I guess if it happens I will try to circumnavigate the problem even if it means going to the UK and buying up loads of DVDs,” she said.
Chiara Lagana, an Italian journalist who writes about TV, is equally shocked at the prospect of having less access to British content.
“The thought is truly unbearable,” she said. “I’ve been fond of British TV series for years. The thought of losing them or not having access to new ones makes me feel poorer. They are of huge quality, much better even in comparison to the US.”
In Spain, British television series have always been viewed as “prestige products”, said Natalia Marcos, a journalist for the TV section of El País.
“Downton Abbey is one example of that, as is The Crown. But it’s not just the period dramas – British cop shows are also very popular. Line of Duty has found a real niche among TV lovers here, who really rate and respect it,” she said.
Marcos said she believed that if Spanish viewers were to find themselves deprived of their favourite British shows, many would not hesitate to resort to illegal means, such as VPNs – encrypted connections over the internet which help circumvent geographical locks.
Gabriele Niola, a film critic and Italy correspondent for Screen International, agreed. “I don’t think the impact will be too significant as people will still find ways of accessing shows if they really want to,” he said.
But post-Brexit, politically the will is there to challenge the dominance of British TV and film.
When the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, visited Rome this week to formally approve Italy’s spending plan for its share of the EU’s recovery fund, the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, hosted her at the Cinecittà film studios in Rome, where €300m (£257m) of the funds are to be invested in development.
“It’s obvious that if Britain leaves the EU, then its productions no longer fall within the community’s quotas,” the Italian culture minister, Dario Franceschini, told Corriere della Sera. “Europe will have to respond on an industrial and content level, and Cinecittà will be strategic on this front.”
Sten-Kristian Saluveer, an Estonian media policy strategist, said EU plans to reassess the amount of UK content – in particular on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon – were inevitable.
“A big catalyst is the increased trade tensions between the UK and France, as well as the EU’s anti-trust procedures,” he said. “The question is not so much about original content produced in the UK as it is about studios in the UK connected to platforms like Apple and Netflix, which are very well positioned to utilise the good relations the UK has with the US – as well as exploiting the European capacity, including everything from work permits to subsidies,” he said.
“When Britain was in the EU there were spillover effects for the rest of the bloc. But now it’s not, the question is why should these platforms be able to exploit the same benefits?”
Saluveer said smaller EU members could stand to benefit from a reduction in UK content, as it could allow more room for their content. He cited the box office success Tangerines – an Estonian-Georgian co-production which was nominated for a Golden Globe – or the Oscar-nominated The Fencer, a Finnish-Estonian-German collaboration.
Thomas Lückerath, a leading TV industry journalist in Germany and editor in chief of the media magazine DWDL, said he believed the EU had “no alternative” than to refocus its definition of what was a “European work” now that Britain had left.
The EU’s audiovisual media services directive – according to which a majority of airtime must be given to European content on terrestrial television and must constitute at least 30% of the number of titles on streaming platforms – was introduced to create a distinction from works from the US which would otherwise dominate, he said.
“This is about ensuring that works are made in the EU – that the streaming services use EU talent and don’t just grab the money. And it has certainly led to more investment flowing into the creative scene,” he said.
Since Brexit, he said “the political agenda hasn’t changed. The 30% quota was simply to boost creativity and that’s what it’s done.”
He said he believed the knock-on effect of this might even lead to more British content, not less. And German TV – which recently showed Sherlock in a prime-time slot, and where series such as Midsummer Murders and Line of Duty have cult followings – would continue to show as many British series as it ever had, he said. “There are no plans to cut what people like to watch.”
Even in France, notoriously protective of its cultural heritage, British TV draws big audiences and dedicated followings. Costume crime such as Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street, and contemporary cop shows such as Luther, Killing Eve and Bodyguard are recent examples.
“British television fiction is of a very high quality, there’s a lot of it, and it consistently has a great deal of success in France,” said Laurence Herszberg, director of the international Series Mania festival, adding that several leading French production houses now had British subsidiaries.
Any decision by the EU to cut the amount of British content on screens would certainly be felt. But a recent decline in French interest in US-made series could reduce that impact.
“My impression is that if UK-made content is no longer classified as European, British product will be able to compensate for the shrinking share of US output,” she said. “There will be some fall-off, but I think maybe not as much as people might fear.”
EU prepares to cut amount of British TV and film shown post-Brexit
Exclusive: number of UK productions seen as ‘disproportionate’ and threat to Europe’s cultural diversity
Daniel Boffey in Brussels
Mon 21 Jun 2021 12.58 BST
The EU is preparing to act against the “disproportionate” amount of British television and film content shown in Europe in the wake of Brexit, in a blow to the UK entertainment industry and the country’s “soft power” abroad.
The UK is Europe’s biggest producer of film and TV programming, buoyed up by £1.4bn from the sale of international rights, but its dominance has been described as a threat to Europe’s “cultural diversity” in an internal EU document seen by the Guardian.
The issue is likely to join a list of points of high tension in the EU-UK relationship since the country left the single market and customs union, including disputes over the sale of British sausages in Northern Ireland and the issue of licences in fishing waters, which led to Royal Navy patrol boats being deployed to Jersey earlier this year.
Brussels’ target this time is the continuing definition of British programmes and film as being “European works”.
Under the EU’s audiovisual media services directive, a majority of airtime must be given to such European content on terrestrial television and it must make up at least 30% of the number of titles on video on demand (VOD) platforms such as Netflix and Amazon.
Countries such as France have gone further, setting a 60% quota for European works on VOD and demanding 15% of the turnover of the platforms is spent in production of European audiovisual and cinematographic works.
According to an EU document tabled with diplomats on 8 June, in the “aftermath of Brexit” it is believed the inclusion of UK content in such quotas has led to what has been described as a “disproportionate” amount of British programming on European television.
“The high availability of UK content in video on demand services, as well as the privileges granted by the qualification as European works, can result in a disproportionate presence of UK content within the European video on demand quota and hinder a larger variety of European works (including from smaller countries or less spoken languages),” a paper distributed among the member states reads. “Therefore the disproportionality may affect the fulfilment of the objectives of promotion of European works and cultural diversity aimed by the audiovisual media services directive.”
The European Commission has been tasked with launching an impact study on the risk to the EU’s “cultural diversity” from British programming, which diplomatic sources said would be a first step towards action to limit the privileges granted to UK content.
Industry figures said a move to define UK content as something other than European, leading to a loss of market share, would particularly hit British drama, as the pre-sale of international rights to shows such as Downton Abbey and The Crown has often been the basis on which they have been able to go into production.
Adam Minns, the executive director of the Commercial Broadcasters Association (COBA), said: “Selling the international intellectual property rights to British programmes has become a crucial part of financing production in certain genres, such as drama.
“Losing access to a substantial part of EU markets would be a serious blow for the UK TV sector, right across the value chain from producers to broadcasters to creatives.”
The sale of international rights to European channels and VOD platforms earned the UK television industry £490m in sales in 2019-20, making it the second biggest market for the UK behind the US.
According to the leaked EU paper, entitled “The disproportionate presence of UK content in the European VOD quota and the effects on the circulation and promotion of diverse European works”, it is thought necessary for the bloc to reassess the “presence of UK content in the aftermath of Brexit”.
“The concerns relate to how Brexit will impact the audiovisual production sector in the European Union as, according to the European Audiovisual Observatory, the UK provides half of the European TV content presence of VOD in Europe and the UK works are the most actively promoted on VOD, while the lowest EU27 share of promotion spots is also found in the UK,” the paper says.
It adds: “Although the UK is now a third country for the European Union, its audiovisual content still qualifies as ‘European works’ according to the definition provided by the AVMS directive, as the definition continues to refer to the European convention on Transfrontier Television of the Council of Europe, to which the UK remains a party.”
It was long feared in the industry that the EU would seek to undermine the UK’s dominance of the audiovisual market once the country had left the bloc. The government had been repeatedly warned of the risk to the British screen industry.
Industry sources said they had believed it was a matter of “when not if”, with the government appearing to have little leverage over Brussels on the issue.
EU sources suggested the initiative would probably be taken further when France takes over the rolling presidency of the union in January, with the backing of Spain, Greece, Italy and Austria, among others. There is a midterm review of the AVMS directive due in three years’ time, which sources suggested may be the point at which changes could come into force.
A UK government spokesperson said: “The UK is proud to host a world-class film and TV industry that entertains viewers globally and which the government has supported throughout the pandemic, including through the film and TV restart scheme.
“European works status continues to apply to audiovisual works originating in the UK, as the UK is a party to the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Transfrontier Television (ECTT).”