Eurovisioni Conference:
"The European Audio-visual and Cultural Identity at Global and Local Level"
French Academy, Villa Medici, Rome 26 - 28 September 1999.

Report by Maja Cederberg

The conference was divided into three different workshops, treating different aspects of the current European audio-visual scenario. But before these more particular aspects were treated, there was an introductory session on the wider question of a common European identity in culture, and, in particular, broadcasting.
This introduction, chaired by the president of Eurovisioni, Luciana Castellina, addressed the more theoretical questions behind the following debates. The main point of debate, was whether there is, or ever will be, any form of a common European culture, as well as if this would be desirable or not. While some found it important to work on the common historical and cultural elements, others wanted to encourage diversity rather than standardise and thus inevitably exclude some minorities. This point seems to me one of the more difficult to deal with. It is indeed important to encourage European production and exchange, not least as a counterpart to the American cultural products, which, as Castellina pointed out, are often much more familiar to a young European person than films or programmes from countries a lot closer to their own, both geographically and culturally. But as those whom some would label pessimists, I agree with Nicolas Garnhamís point that compromising national cultures into the great European, would mean concessions on the part of minorities, why unity in the nearer future seems both undesirable and impossible. As the globalising trends frequently means an outcome opposite of its initial purpose - diversity rather than standardisation - I believe that struggle over European hegemony would mean that less powerful nations would uphold their differences rather than comply with the stronger forces. Instead, the question for me, and many others in this debate, evolved around the importance of exchange and education within Europe. In practice, this would mean not just supporting the production in different European countries, but also their distribution, to increase the understanding between cultures on the continent, after which perhaps more common elements will turn up by themselves, without cultural dictatorship from the top.
The difficult question of quality was also mentioned in this session, and the problems involved in choosing different kinds of projects or companies to support, but this, as the above mentioned issue, was discussed more in depth in the first workshop, why I will now go over to that.

Workshop 1: "The Evolution of Policies to Support Production in Europe"
Chaired by Carol Tongue, adviser Euro-Media-Culture.

This debate evolved around what to focus support mechanisms on, and the main issue was whether to concentrate on production or distribution. The production/distribution crisis in Italy was pointed out, where only 40 out of 90 films produced every year actually reach the screens. This situation has occurred because support has been focused solely on production of products, after which the different producers often have been unable to do anything with their finished work. This problem naturally has a very important commercial side to it, which is where the question of quality is central. Difficulties in getting distribution rights has led to concentration to a few distributors, which all have, and are forced to have, primarily financial interests in audio-visual products. This is the trap in which most alternative production get caught - their lack of commercial value. Distributors are dependent on an audience, and audiences more or less follow the mainstream.
There seemed thus to be a consensus towards directing support mechanisms further towards distribution, the main argument being that it is pointless to support cultural products which the public cannot take part in. But the more important issue of taste and quality also comes in to this political strategy.
As Jean-Noel Dibie argued in his conclusions, supporting distribution around Europe of domestic products will perhaps help educate the younger generation, so that it in the future comes to request something different than American superheroes. He pointed towards the fact that people can only choose from existing alternatives, why, if given more choice, what today is alternative and subversive may tomorrow become the mainstream, public taste.
The question of Europe vs. America naturally came up, and though many speakers still saw the importance of providing a European counterpart to the American, the important point of Europe on its own came up several times, and how we need good audio-visual products for ourselves, not just to compete with the industry, thus: Europe first, America later.
Specificity was several times mentioned and encouraged in the question of support mechanisms, what types of production or distribution to support, as well as how. Projects or companies, was one of the main questions, and the former seemed favoured by American most, except naturally some people financially involved in the media, who argued that companies should be supported since they take all the risks. This is true to an extent, but, to my delight, this debate was actually, as opposed to some of the others, centred around audio-visual products as culture, rather than just commodities, why quality was a central issue, and why support to projects seemed to be favoured over support to companies, and why specificity was argued to be a central feature in the request for financial support for production, and, primarily for the moment, distribution.
The question of how to go about the situation to spread different national products, and exchange cultures and values within Europe, was naturally very central to the issue, but unfortunately stood rather unsolved at the end of the session. Suggestions of changing distribution rights to improve the production / distribution problem were suggested, but no concrete solutions were proposed. Co-production as a means of cultural exchange was taken up, which seemed an interesting form of viewing othersí cultural values as well as "seeing oneís own with other eyes", as Luciana Castellina put it, but though there were some good points on concrete action, the main debate was on an idealistic, not a concrete, plane.

Workshop 2: "The Impact of Technological Evolution on the Structure of the Programmes on Offer"
Chaired by Paola Manacorda, Officer of the Authority for guaranties in Communications.

This second session was devoted to how new media technologies have changed the audio-visual scenario in Europe, and the complications of their commercial touch. The question of access was a central one, how new technologies, by being very expensive, are only available to a limited number of companies, nearly all within the private sector. There seemed to be a consensus belief, that the technologies on their own were positive, but that the present system favours only the established commercial media giants, which leads to a very undemocratic scenario in Europe, whereby new technologies leads to new exclusions, and it becomes more and more difficult for smaller companies as well as public service systems to function as counterparts to mainstream audio-visual culture.
Through this development, television programming has become either very expensive, or very poor quality, which means that though ways of distributing programmes have increased in number, the programmes on offer has decreased both in diversity and quality through the financial situation. Many speakers argued that technology on its own has taken over the scenario, and that old values of cultural quality in broadcasting have been forgotten about, why effort needs to be put in to re-evaluate the purpose of broadcasting - culture or commodity? This, I think, is a crucial point of discussion which needs to be focused on by policy makers, helping the development towards diversification rather than standardisation. For if, as the previous session argued, Europe is to serve as a counterpart to American audio-visual industry, we cannot model its development towards a wholly commercial, market-controlled scenario.
How to preserve cultural values in broadcasting, was a central point of debate, and some controversy existed around the table on the point of control of the development. While some pointed towards the harmfulness of diversification, some media professionals feared too much control would hinder market development and full usage of these new resources. Though I do sympathies with the latter, who have to have a financial interest in the debate and naturally fear for their companies, I still want to put forward the importance of the media as serving the people. If broadcasting, and thereby both culture and information, becomes totally in the hands of the market, its initial human dimension will quickly disappear, why I think legislation to direct the development towards keeping a diverse scenario with interests other than commercial, is extremely important.
There seemed to be a consensus belief in the debate, that most ways in which TV supply has been changed by technological innovations, have not been culturally positive, but rather favourable for the big players in the system. With a few exceptions, the main conclusion the speakers agreed on, was that the question of access needs to be solved to give the less powerful players in the scenario a chance, and that control is needed to make sure that audio-visual products in the future keep their cultural importance, and exist as something further than simple commodities, but unfortunately no direct solutions to the problem were reached.

Workshop 3: "Devising a Common European Audio-visual Strategy in view of the forthcoming World Trade organization Agreements"
Chaired by Susan Baldwin, Executive Director of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission Broadcasting

This session was rather difficult to follow for an outsider (like me), since the debate featured nearly exclusively views from within the broadcasting industry. The whole discussion was very much centred on finances, and on the commercial part of the industry, this because the aim of the discussion was to take a stand in the world trade organisation (which, again, was never done in any concrete manner). I found this session rather different from the previous part of the conference, which I thought had a goal higher than making financial strategies for European media giants.
What Gaetano Stucchi (European Broadcasting Union) in the introduction referred to as "the good will of the companies", was by several speakers around this table very much emphasised, suggesting that regulation rather than legislation should be favoured in world audio-visual trade, and that the different parties in the scenario should be left on their own to solve broadcasting issues. Culture and identity was thus largely left out of this discussion, as also pointed out by a few members of the panel, who seemed to have less of an economic interest in broadcasting, and more of a cultural.
The offensive / defensive broadcasting interests was a main focus of the debate, and many complaints were directed towards the part of the world that have not (yet?) liberated their markets. The claim of offensive broadcasting interests, meaning opening up markets for foreign investment, as being in the interest of cultural exchange and education, was a rather strong euphemism for the will to exploit new territories, and though I do agree that cultural exchange should occur in all parts of the world and not just focus upon Europe, I would say that unfortunately, where the commercial Western media industry is concerned, the exchange is rather exclusively a one-way flow.

To conclude, I would like to mention a few of my points of view on the conference as a whole. Though many of the topics discussed interest me a lot, I think the conference featured too many representatives from the broadcasting industry, and too few academics. The more theoretical parts of the conference could have been a lot more fruitful if featuring more people involved in these specific issues. In fact, I think the discussions would have been a lot more interesting if all the sessions, like the first one, had been open to debate to all participants, and not a closed panel, since I do know that a lot of people in the room had very interesting thoughts to bring into the discussions, but were unable to.
I was also a bit disappointed with the fact that conclusions were very vague and featured no concrete conclusions to the questions posed, but rather led to several more questions. I think that perhaps reducing the conference to a smaller number of questions, would help to bring some more answers out of it.
Since I have never been to this kind of a conference before, I did enjoy the experience, and thought it was interesting to become familiar to a side of the media industry that has been rather unknown to me, as a student. And though I, as understood from my report, have a lot of comments upon the structure and content of the conference, many interesting points came up, not least in my discussions with the other students, in which we all had a chance to discuss our own points of view, unfortunately invisible to the important people around the big table.