EU regulators play catch up with connected TV

Petra-KammerevertThe European Commission has announced that it will be launching a public consultation on the regulation of HbbTV this year.  However, the timing might seem strange as there are already technical European standards for providing HbbTV (to be precise HBB TV, though the term has become largely redundant) (ETSI TS 102 796) and it is being widely enjoyed in Italy, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, amongst others. But a closer inspection shows that it is the EU Parliament that is behind the regulatory push.

In fact, earlier this month over 100 delegates, including broadcasters and electronics manufacturers, attended an event in the EU Parliament organised by MEP Petra Kammerevert, the rapporteur of Parliament’s Committee working on the HbbTV initiative, to discuss regulation.

According to a presentation made by the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, it forsees HbbTV taking over the whole television market. Approximately 90% of the German broadcast market supports HbbTV, with around 50 currently known applications from large and small stations. With device prices coming down and widespread broadband in Europe, the age of smart TV seems to have arrived.

Companies currently offering or rolling out HbbTV include RAI (Italy), RTVE (Spain), YLE (Finland), RTBF (Belgium), NRK (Norway), Dutch broadcasters (SBS, NPO and RTL), around 11 French chains and Spanish broadcasters TVE and Telefonica.

In the UK, the market is slightly different, with YouView offering a similar service, and the vast majority of Freeview HD receivers offering connectivity through the D-Book specifications.

Questions from the floor, a first draft report and comments from Ms.Kammervert, indicated the Committee is far from clear about a regulatory approach.  Indeed, it is still auditing the regulatory problems. And what a rich seam of problems there are!

The lack of harmonisation between broadcast TV and the internet is one headache. The internet enjoys far lighter regulation than broadcast TV. Areas that need to be considered, when seamlessly providing both, include advertising items such as alcohol, adult-only content, the promotion of diverse political views, piracy, data protection issues and uneven member state regulations and enforcement.  The latter has led to some diversity of business models for the available HbbTV services.

In the US, broadcasters have already voiced concerns about viewers watching illegal internet downloads on connected televisions. The piracy fear means some of the existing services such as Google TV and Yahoo TV are blocked from showing major US broadcasters’ content.

Increased interactivity, for instance from social media services, also raises some challenges. Imagine your browser blocking out some TV screen space, then add in instant messaging, an email side bar, a small Twitter window and say an RSS feed. Such blocking out of screen space is unlikely to please broadcast TV advertisers who are used to full-screen attention, more or less.

Finally there was extended discussion of the “findability” of internet and broadcast content providers.

A hot concern raised in the draft report is “Creators of platforms and/or portal operators make a preselection of the content which will be available and above all determine whether and how it is prioritised, and they alone decide on the technology to be used in providing it.” This is obviously going to make manufacturers and portal owners much more powerful in relation to traditional media content providers.

Dynamic Neelie Kroes, Commissioner of DG Connect, will be the main Commissioner charged with making, what now seems inevitable, a Proposal for European legislation to regulate the market.

In particular, Ms.Kroes has to ensure the market is competitive as well as offering the maximum amount of choice to consumers.  Other Commissioners likely to have a say include Michel Barnier representing the Internal Market, Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia and Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou.  Though Commissioner Vassiliou, may not have had time to discuss HbbTV with fellow lawyer Brad Smith of Microsoft, when they met earlier this year at a youth education event.

For those interested in influencing the regulation of HbbTV, there is still time before late April 2013 when the Parliamentary Committee is expected to finalise its report and then the first vote in May of the MEPs. Amendments to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive seem likely but it is early days. As MEP Petra Kammevert said “I encourage industry players to tell us their views”. And there certainly is a need to support light-touch regulation if HbbTV is to fulfil its potential.

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