EBU Seeks To Clip GAFAN’s Wings

Global digital giants, collectively referred to by acronyms like GAFAN (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Netflix), have gained the upper hand over traditional broadcasters in determining what people watch on TV, especially the younger generation.

This message has been sounded by Noel Curran, DG (Director General) of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), who called accordingly for concerted action to strengthen the media sector in Europe and ensure that people can find and access “high-quality, reliable information and programming” when they turn on their television sets or go online.

Rather than seeking direct legislation targeting these big tech players, which presumably would be regarded as counter-productive, Curran instead urged for measures that reinvigorate the European media sector and help enhance its contribution to national democracies and cultural identity. “We have a real opportunity to ensure that bold European digital policies are put in place to strengthen the media sector for the next 70 years”. Speaking on the occasion of the EBU’s 70th anniversary, Curran added that “without greater transparency and accountability for platforms, we risk seeing core European values – such as democracy and cultural diversity – fundamentally undermined”.

Without more clarity over what Curran is proposing there is a risk of it sounding like a collective bleat of malcontentment from legacy broadcasters already conceding defeat to a rising tide of US invaders. After all, the assault from GAFAN is now being reinforced by new major streaming services, namely Disney+, Comcast’s forthcoming Peacock, AT&T’s HBO Max and Apple TV+.

There is also a paradox in the argument that these big players are dictating what people watch in an era when the choice between service providers is greater than ever. The real complaint seems to be that pubcasters are losing the battle for eyeballs in a fragmented content world. Netflix in particular has retorted that it is investing ever more on local content and programs that are both popular and respecting the cultures of the regions.

Similarly, Curran’s gripe that European pubcasters find it increasingly difficult to make their content visible to audiences because the “algorithms of Silicon Valley powerhouses become ever-more dominant curators of what European audiences consume” can also be thrown back in his face. European pubcasters are collaborating over online portals and should be countering by improving their algorithms rather than complaining they are not up to scratch.

Curran is also on thin ice when he alludes to the onslaught of disinformation eroding trust in democracy, even though he does not directly accuse the digital giants of being disproportionately responsible. Scaling the moral high ground is always a risky exercise that should be negotiated with care and is not really what the EBU should be doing.

There is a sense of déjà vu in that the EBU expressed similar concerns 12 years ago in March 2008 when replying to the European Commission on the application of state aid rules to public service broadcasting. At that stage though there was greater optimism on the part of pubcasters and the EBU even welcomed the advance of Google in particular as an aggregator of user generated content. The EBU’s objective then was to relax state aid rules so that pubcasters could compete more effectively with the US insurgents in the then less mature online arena.

There was a firm belief then that pubcasters could thrive in the burgeoning OTT arena, inspired perhaps by the early pioneering success of one or two of their catch-up portals, notably the BBC iPlayer in the UK. The EBU wrote then, “Public service broadcasters are capable of responding to consumer demand for professionally-produced online content by exploiting their advantages, such as the quality of their products, strong public trust, and professional editing skills. They are striving for online presence so that their output reaches a wider section of the population.”

There is a sense that the pubcasters have squandered those advantages and even regressed, with the iPlayer for example having almost stood still since then while the SVoD providers like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video have evolved almost beyond recognition. The problem is not so much lack of quality content but failure to invest sufficiently in personalization, navigation and recommendation. Consumers are increasingly seeking effective aggregation services and the pubcasters have an opportunity to grasp the mettle through their emerging portals, but to do that they need to make peace with the digital giants and incorporate their content within their programming when they are able to do so, rather than attempting futile resistance.

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