Cable TV: Europe worries that American programming will dominate
Ludwigshafen, West Germany
A Coca-Cola commercial interrupting the film? ''So what?'' an American would say. But such ads on the new cable television network in this German industrial town have set off a violent debate throughout Europe.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, Europe's public stations strictly limit commercial breaks. In France, no program can be interrupted. In Germany, only 20 minutes daily of commercials are allowed, and none after 7 p.m. Viewers pay a license fee to support the stations.
Cable television will change all this.
Cable hookups are expensive, up to $2,000 a household for France's futuristic fiber-optics network, and most of Europe's financially strapped governments cannot afford such sums. So they are wooing private investment to help meet the costs.
This private investment means advertising - and nightmares for leftist politicians. Big business will take over, they charge, giving it a new, dangerous power.
''All the right-wing newspaper publishers are moving into cable,'' argues Peter Paterno of the German Social Democratic Party. ''Soon they are going to control all the broadcasting news outlets as well as all the written press in the country.''
Public broadcasters are also worried. They fear that cable will take away their best programs, undermining popular support for their license fees. For example, Michael Smithson of British Broadcasting Corporation warns that the big multinational cable operators will be able to outbid public organizations for films and sports events.
''You'll have to pay to watch Wimbledon on television,'' he says. ''That would be a tragedy.''
And who might buy up Wimbledon? And flood Europe with trashy, cheap programming? The imperialistic American giant, of course.
The new private cable operators need program after program to fill their multiple channels, and the only suppliers with enough material at reasonable prices are in the United States.
''Presently, British television limits American imports to 14 percent of all programs,'' explains Nick Melish of Entertainment Television, a British cable company. The rest of Europe has similar restrictions, some formal, some informal. ''But if those limits are maintained for cable here, there will be no cable. Our programming will have to be at least half American, maybe more.''
At best, this prospect fills Europeans with foreboding. ''It won't improve our television to just have more and more old films and American sitcoms,'' says German national television's FriedrichBlumenbroch.
At worst, it fires fright. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said cable television would destroy German family life. French critics helped derail Luxembourg's plans for a private satellite channel by dubbing it the ''Coca-Cola station.'' The BBC's Smithson concludes, ''We don't want to become like Canada.''
European fears are not only cultural, but economic. choThe governments pushing cable see it as a necessary expense to provide the infrastructure for the information age and to foster an economic bonanza, providing work for such disparate groups as construction workers and artists, aging steel plants, and modern high-technology corporations.
But critics question the investment. They say new cable materials and satellites soon may make the present cable systems obsolete. Moreover, will Europeans want to pay enough for extra television to support cable?