More Borgen, less Sherlock: Europe cracks down on British TV
Streaming services may struggle to replace content from the UK, which contributes significantly to their ‘European works’ quotas.
It’s a question worthy of a great TV detective: can streamers like Netflix still guarantee a certain proportion of European content if the goalposts are suddenly moved to exclude hits like Sherlock and Doctor Who?
They may soon have to, as the European Commission is considering removing the U.K. from the list of countries recognized as providing “European” content, according to a policy paper seen by POLITICO. That would put broadcasters and streaming platforms in a tight spot, as the U.K. is among the biggest contributors to their European catalogs.
"The need to re-define the concept of European works has been raised in the context of Brexit. It is arguable that, since the U.K. is no longer a member of the EU, works originating in the U.K. should no longer be considered as European,” said the paper. It also raised the idea of cutting Switzerland from the scope of European works.
Under the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, television and streaming must include a share of "European works" in their transmission schedules or on-demand catalogues. These are defined as programs originating in, and produced mainly by nationals of, EU countries or those that have ratified the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Transfrontier Television (ECTT), which includes neighbors such as the U.K., Turkey and Ukraine.
The Commission is now considering how to tighten these criteria.
In the approach laid out in the paper, dated December 2022, countries that have signed up to the ECTT should also have close ties with the EU and its internal market, singling out members of the European Economic Area, EU candidate countries, or potential candidates and sovereignties which signed agreements to use the euro like the Holy See and San Marino.
Move over, Fleabag
That would be bad news for broadcasters and streamers. The U.K. gobbled up about 28 percent of platforms’ European investments in 2021, compared to about 21 percent for German productions and 15 percent for French, according to the European Audiovisual Observatory.
"It is a wrong discussion, at a wrong time," Sabine Verheyen, chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education, told POLITICO in response to the Commission document. She warned against excluding such an "important partner, even if they are not a member of the Union anymore."
As early as June 2021, the Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT) warned against any move to exclude U.K. productions. "Despite Brexit, the audiovisual community continues to work hand in hand across the channel," it said. "We should focus on building bridges, not burning them."
In a reaction to the Commission paper, a spokesperson for the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport said: "the U.K. remains committed to European works. We continue to support its contribution to cultural enrichment across Europe and to provide audiences access to content they know and love."
The Commission hasn’t yet indicated how it might roll out the changes, and it hasn’t made a definitive proposition to exclude U.K. content; any such move would no doubt trigger opposition from industry. The EU is due to evaluate the audiovisual directive by the end of 2026.
A Commission spokesperson said in a statement that the EU executive "is currently undertaking a fact-finding exercise" to make sure European works benefit from a "diverse, fair and balanced market.”