Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Subsidising Competitiveness or Supporting Culture?

The current MEDIA programme is running for seven years and has a total budget of approximately €755,000,000 for 2007-2013. The European Commission has launched a public consultation on a future EU programme for the audiovisual sector which would replace the current one. The consultation will remain open until 30 November, here.

During the second semester of 2011 the Commission intends to adopt a draft Decision of the European Parliament and Council establishing a new MEDIA programme after 2013. This new programme will help achieve the objectives of the new 'Europe 2020' Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.

There is a lot that is problematic about the MEDIA Programme's schemes. Much of what passes for development funding, for instance, is used to cover producer overhead, especially the support for slate schemes. These financial supports bolster many audiovisual businesses that would otherwise be unsustainable because they generate little income in the market from the sale of their output.

This is certainly true in Ireland where, if we're hard-nosed about it, supports or subsidies that keep otherwise unviable companies in business do relatively little to promote cultural or market competitiveness with non-European audiovisual production.

In market terms 'competitiveness' has a very specific meaning. The consultation addresses various areas of MEDIA support or subsidy as though they would or could address issues of competitiveness in the market on a Europe-wide basis.

They reveal several assumptions being made about that market and the first thing to be said is that it is not homogeneous and the issues relating to competitiveness vary greatly from one country to another. The size of each country's internal market, its linguistic heritage, and the historical strength of its audiovisual industry are not reducible to a single European construct.

Nor can one, for instance, conflate the French market and the Irish market for audiovisual products. They are separate markets with a marginal areas of overlap within the single currency zone. That is all.

It is simply not possible to address issues of market competitiveness with subsidy or support schemes on a Europe-wide basis and it's time that the wisdom of attempting to forge a single market for audiovisual products was properly investigated.

But is market competitiveness really the issue? I fear that the language used in the consultation will limit respondents' focus to redundant issues. The focus should be on ways to support, enhance and promote the diversity of all our audiovisual cultures in Europe. That means supporting channels of access or outlets for that diversity as it emerges from within originating cultures.

That is not the same as subsidising a 'single market'-driven solution and it means being absolutely clear about the cultural purpose and the non-recoverable cost of any actions or support programmes being undertaken.

There is no public financial solution to market competitiveness issues in the European audiovisual sector. Taken to its logical conclusion any and all offers of funding support made to European audiovisual producers, distributors and exhibitors will not and can not guarantee an audience for audiovisual product.

Such support will, however, underwrite the costs of production, distribution and exhibition, thereby creating a sham economy in each area of the sector. Outcomes cannot be determined with any certainty by the intervention of public agencies and public funding.

That said I believe, again, that the emphasis on 'competitiveness' is misplaced. The focus on market pressures loses sight of who should really benefit from any intervention. That should be European audiences.

The expansion of choice and programme diversity for audiences will flow from culturally-motivated policies, and not from market interventions. They are too easily soaked up by otherwise unsustainable businesses.

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