The EU has spoken: Member States can impose obligations that ensure general interest media services get prominence, as part of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMSD). According to the EU, this means media services that support “media pluralism, freedom of speech and cultural diversity”.
But five years on from the AVMSD, we see that many Member States have failed to define prominence rules. Meanwhile, audiences struggle to find and discover general interest media services, as device manufacturers and interface providers tend to promote their own content and channels as well as that of commercial partners. This means that European audiences miss out on general interest media services, including local news, entertainment and educational programmes. We need to see more ambition to implement prominence rules.
Member States must define general interest media services. General interest services can be defined as benefiting the public by offering objective information from diverse sources that enable citizens to form independent opinions and contribute to democratic goals. However, the race for audience attention in a hyper-competitive media market can lead to the promotion of inflammatory, meaningless or irrelevant content.
Public service media produce general interest services due to their mandate to inform, educate and entertain the entire public. As a result, they are natural candidates to benefit from prominence rules. Similarly, commercial TV and radio stations could also be considered as general interest media services if they contribute to public interest objectives.
Device manufacturers and user interface providers, which now manage and control access to media services, should give prominence. Currently, these parties define, on their own terms and often through commercial deals, which apps are pre-installed and which media outlets are shown prominently.
This results in audiences defaulting to the services of the biggest players in the market, many of which are vertically integrated and are therefore in a position to favour their own content on their proprietary interfaces. When decisions are being made on what content to feature prominently, appropriate value must be given to the players that are contributing general interest content. This way, audiences will have a better chance to find and discover the content that is the most beneficial for their engagement in society.
Currently, there are only a few examples in the EU where prominence rules are already in place. Germany and France have modernized their media laws with prominence obligations. They have defined general interest media services and we see there that public service media, among others, are recognized for the role they play in contributing to objective opinion forming. In Germany, public service media broadcasts have to be displayed at the first selection level. In France, prominence to public service media has to be given not only on the home page but also in recommendations or search results, though there is more work needed from the regulator.
In Italy, the updated media law obliges device manufacturers, platforms and interface providers to offer prominence. Italy is currently preparing guidelines on who benefits from prominence and under which conditions. In Ireland, a new media act allows the regulator to impose prominence rules on relevant TV interfaces and platforms.
The UK is also considering a new framework, which outlines a prominence regime for designated internet programme services from public service media. These services would receive prominence on “regulated television selection services”.
In Europe, the EU has a chance in the European Media Freedom Act to oblige Member States to take action and ensure appropriate prominence of general interest media services. We urge policy makers not to miss this opportunity to reinforce the value that they have already asserted for this topic.