The president of Europe’s public service media alliance has called for “must-carry” rules for a digital age, which can save once-mighty national broadcasters from being overwhelmed by US streaming services and internet platforms.
Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and new head of the European Broadcasting Union, described the EU regulation push as part of a necessary fightback from public media, which must band together to survive an existential challenge.
“The new frontier for EBU is to try to build alliances at a European scale,” she told the Financial Times, referring to content and other partnerships between members, which includes 69 groups across 56 countries. “To try to resist, and to promote our diversity and points of view, our only way is to find a way to do things together.”
Unlike past technological leaps in media such as radio or television, which were shepherded by European governments, public broadcasters have felt increasingly threatened by an unregulated internet revolution that has undercut their prominence with audiences.
So-called “must carry” rules, which force traditional television distributors to deliver specified channels, have long guaranteed the prominence of public service broadcasters. But no such requirements apply to online operators, meaning public service media have no special privileges on internet televisions or online media platforms.
EBU members, who founded the Eurovision Song Contest, collectively spent around €19.5bn in 2019 and the biggest broadcasters such as Italy’s RAI, the BBC in the UK, and ARD in Germany remain some of the continent’s most popular media outlets. But funding levels are flagging, as well as viewers.
Ms Ernotte warned that digital gatekeepers were endangering public service media’s ability to reach audiences, retain legitimacy for public funding, and compete with deep-pocketed streaming rivals such as Disney, Netflix and YouTube.
“Are we going to have access in the future to our audience? If you have to ask Google Store or Apple Store before you can have your own app on a connected television, it is a core question for public service media,” she said.
“Spectrum is local, we have no problem [with broadcast access], but on the internet there are gatekeepers. How do we deal with that?”
The exodus of young users to social media and US services is a continent-wide concern for broadcasters. “If people want it, public service media will stay alive,” she added. “At some point if people say, there’s no use to public service media, I prefer Netflix and TikTok, well, we are going to be dead.”
Partly because of the breadth of its membership — which includes propaganda-heavy state broadcasters such as those in Russia and Turkey — the EBU has rarely taken forthright public stances on political issues.
But Ms Ernotte, a former telecoms executive who is the first woman and French national to lead the EBU, wants a more proactive approach as Brussels works on a string of legislative proposals to regulate online platforms. “The EU is no longer naive on the [big tech platforms],” she said. “This is very good news.”
Her priorities are guaranteeing access online, ensuring prominence and control of data. “It is like an online ‘must carry’,” she said, referring to rules that require cable or telecoms operators to carry certain radio and television channels. “Everything that goes in favour of the transparency — of the store, of the interface, of the algorithm — is good for us.”
Her call for a regulation overhaul echoes many issues raised by Ofcom, the UK media regulator, in a recent consultation.
At France Television, Ms Ernotte pioneered “The Alliance” with RAI and ZDF to commission and bankroll high-end drama and documentaries, including an upcoming series based on the life of Italian renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.
With the EBU, she is hoping to expand the concept to pan-European productions, so national broadcasters can pool resources to compete with the blockbuster budgets of Netflix and Disney. EBU members spend around €3bn on drama and film and €5.5bn on news, which compares to Netflix’s worldwide content budget of roughly €14bn this year.
Other initiatives include a news hub for journalism from EBU members, which would be translated into local languages and shared. The EBU already pools some sports rights.
“We feel weak. But it is better to feel weak,” said Ms Ernotte, referring to the financial firepower of US media groups. “If you feel weak, you react. If you feel too strong, you say, well we are powerful, it’s fine. But we are no longer powerful. It is very useful to feel weak.”