Europeans Balk at Rising Tide of American Movies

IN a busy square of central Brussels, young women distribute brochures with photos of American films like ``Dirty Dancing,'' ``Rocky IV,'' and ``Black Widow,'' while a huge outdoor screen presents scenes from these and other - mostly American - movies. It's advertising for a cable-television channel that plays films - mostly American - 24 hours a day. And it's enough to make Jack Lang's skin crawl.

Mr. Lang, French minister of culture, is a recognized leader of a group of Europeans who want strict limits on non-European - read American - television programming within the European Community (EC). The goal is to protect European viewers and European cinematic and television producers from a rising tide of US movies and TV series.

Not satisfied with tentative EC agreement on a policy that shoots for majority European programming, Lang and his mostly French supporters want a 60 percent quota. That suggestion alarms Americans like Trade Representative Carla Hills, or Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

It's easy to see why. With the lifting of internal community borders set for the end of 1992, and with predictions of an explosion in European broadcasting, the stakes are extremely high. Already sales of American-produced programming top $820 million annually on the European market, and community experts expect the number of television stations to double to about 200 by 1993.

Quota-favoring Europeans say it's a question of preserving their culture and, ultimately, their soul. But Americans respond that it's economic protectionism and have raised the issue with GATT as a trade dispute.

After wavering since January on the issue of programming quotas, the Council of European Ministers must take a final vote by early next month. Although it appears almost impossible politically for a 60 percent quota to be adopted, the issue has reached such a level of controversy that no one is ruling out a surprise.

``Right now I don't think anyone knows how this is going to turn out,'' says Harald Hotze, EC spokesman for audiovisual affairs. Mr. Hotze notes that already three community members - Belgium, Denmark, and West Germany - voted against a quota when the wording under consideration called for a simple majority of European programming ``where practicable.''

Another factor that could influence the council's October vote is this week's conference in Paris on Europe's audiovisual future, sponsored jointly by the European Commission and the French government. Observers expect lobbying to be heavy for protection of what many admit is a weak European industry.

European producers argue that the US should understand their need for a ``helping hand.'' They note that US companies are already producing for a large single market, which makes the task of reselling their movies and television series to a unified Europe much easier. On the other hand, they say, European companies are geared to producing for national markets.

But European producers face another hurdle - European consumers. Viewers in Europe are so accustomed to American plots and style that such productions no longer seem foreign.

At the same time, productions from the country next door may seem incomprehensible, making the task of selling series from one European country to another difficult. ``Many Germans no longer have the patience to watch a slow-developing French production,'' says Hotze, himself German.

A possible future trend is more production by United States companies on the European continent for the European market, perhaps in co-production with European companies. Europeans favoring some controls say this simply hasn't been necessary in the past, since US companies were better off selling at pure profit their movies and old series to European television stations.

But if limitations on foreign programming are approved, it could also spell difficulty for new European stations that have relied for years on cheap revivals of Gilligan's Island and Falcon Crest.

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