This month marks the closing chapter on the Swedish presidency in the European Union and its unfulfilled agenda to ban TV kidvertising Europe-wide. Sweden placed the matter at the top of its priority list when it took over the rotating EU leadership position in January, but the uphill battle for the unpopular initiative was halted in April when an EU Commission-funded study published an evaluation endorsing self-regulation by the TV industry. Examining existing legislation, regulation and complaints in the 15 EU countries, the study concludes that TV is already the most tightly regulated medium, and recommended that no further legislation be imposed.
In its original form, the Swedes’ proposal sought to completely eliminate any advertising to children in Europe. However, its staunch stance has been gradually diluted to advocate the introduction of regulations or codes of practice that are applicable across the board so the industry can be regulated on a pan-European level.
One of the problems the proposal attempts to address is the wide variance of restrictions from country to country. For example, in Sweden and Norway, TV advertising directed at children under 12 is not permitted, and there is a complete ad ban during preschool programming. In the Flemish region of Belgium, ads are banned five minutes before and after kids programs, while in French Belgium there’s a ban on kidvertising for shows under 30 minutes in length. Kids from the U.K., however, are exposed to the largest amount of TV advertising in Europe, according to Maria Gasste, a spokesperson from the presidency.
But standardization across the EU board isn’t the answer, says David Ferguson, president of London-based Cinar Europe.
He believes each country has unique characteristics that aren’t taken into account with a unilateral approach to regulation. ‘It should be within the rights of every state to regulate its own situation to reflect its own culture.’ To do otherwise, he says, would be like ‘trying to teach Germans math using an American curriculum.’
The cuts would most directly affect localized fare, says Ferguson. ‘When we’re talking about producing kids programming that reflects European life, they need money,’ he says. ‘If you take away ad revenue as a funding source, the broadcasters have to rely heavily on simply acquiring foreign products, which is not indicative of the culture that they’re supposed to be providing for.’
Roch Lener, president and CEO of France-based Millimages, believes that any country that outlaws advertising for kids programs will be killing its own animation industry. If the proposal were to go through, ‘broadcasters would not commission shows from their own country; they would buy from abroad, from countries that have the financial means to produce independently,’ he claims.
Marc-Antoine d’Halluin, group managing director for Fox Kids Europe, agrees with both Ferguson and Lener. ‘It would be a disaster and would basically kill the European animation production industry,’ says d’Halluin. ‘Not to mention the number of casualties in terms of tens of thousands of jobs [that would be lost]. It would basically translate into European broadcasters sourcing their programming from the U.S. and Asia. All the local production entities would have to close because the channels will no longer have any budget to fund or co-fund local production.’
Despite these scary ‘What if’ scenarios, the TV industry has found another ally in EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, who carries considerable weight over the EU presidency. Responsible for matters concerning education and culture, she believes the television industry has shown it is complying with the present EU-developed TV Directive (Television Without Frontiers), which lays down requirements on how kidvertising is to be designed so it doesn’t present any kind of undue influence or danger.
Up for revision at the end of 2002, the Directive is open to debate and commission proposals, but Reding finds no reason to tighten the rules and has no intention of putting the Swedish proposal forward. She claims it is unfair to discriminate between the media-a ban on TV advertising should also apply to the Internet and print media, for example. Reding also believes that a ban on advertising would decimate the ability of commercial TV to invest in high-quality programs for children.
Despite Sweden’s departure, the debate promises to rage on since Belgium takes over the reins of the EU presidency in July. Backing the Swedes, the new leaders plan to continue the seemingly fruitless battle.