“Final battle between companies providing infrastructure from overseas and European content”

3 Questions to Tobias Schmid, Executive Vice-President Governmental Affairs RTL Group

Per Strömbäck: I’ld like to ask you some questions about news because news are an important part of our society, in particular in terms of public access to information which is at the cornerstone of our democracy. How do you see the production of news evolving in the digital economy?

Tobias Schmid: There is this moment when you realize that you have now reached establishment: that’s the moment when, as a representative of a commercial broadcaster, you are talking about news!

All kidding aside, news as well as every kind of exclusive content are becoming more and more important for companies like ours as an USP to the viewers. And at the same time, I think news from a journalistic point of view are also becoming more important for the society, as we can see from all the political discussions that we currently have. So the overall importance of news reporting will increase for the traditional media companies.  But there are challenges. As a company, we are producing professional audiovisual content across all genres – drama series, game shows, factual entertainment and news and information magazines. In order to do so we need a future-driven legal framework to make sure that we can continue to finance it. In this very competitive situation of both globalization and digitalization at the same time, we need to be able to continue financing this diverse output.

European media companies are in a structurally disadvantaged situation competing with international tech and internet players that are not bound by the same legislative framework in the same environment with offers for the same viewers. At the same time we are fighting a final battle between companies providing infrastructure from overseas and the European content industry.

We need to realize that the current discussion on the revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive (AVMS, including provisions on advertising in the audiovisual sector) is a discussion that we should have had five years ago. It is essential to ensure that the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union enable us to stay in this battle and compete with  Netflix, YouTube and Amazon. The number of Netflix subscribers almost quadrupled since 2011.

Media companies – together with our colleagues from the print media, public broadcasters and the press in general – are generating the oxygen for a democratic society.

From a content and a democratic point of view, it’s important to realize that, in the context of the revision of the AVMS directive, we have now a unique opportunity to obtain a future regulation driven by these aspirations. If we fail, the next chance will be in ten years. And in ten years, it may be too late.

PS: So I watch Netflix and Youtube, but I’ve never seen any news shows. Why don’t we see original news on Youtube?

TS: Producing news is simply very expensive. The idea of our business model is that we as a company take responsibility to entertain and inform our audiences. And you can only succeed in news reporting with an excellently qualified, independent editorial team. Earning the money required to produce news is only possible through advertising – which is still the biggest revenue source/stream of our Group. YouTube does not share that kind of business model – they don’t generate own content, especially not news. Their aim is to create a global platform which is why they have to be very mainstream. News is not always the audience’s main interest.

Producing news is simply very expensive. The idea of our business model is that we as a company take responsibility to entertain and inform our audiences. And you can only succeed in news reporting with an excellently qualified, independent editorial team.

That leads us to another important aspect. Offers have to make sure that they are accessible, that people are able to find them. For a few weeks the AMP (accelerated mobile pages) project has been accessible. It’s interesting and is designed to make content load quickly and easily explorable. It means though, that Google decides which kind of advertising can be seen on a mobile device, and which companies can use these AMP-enabled pages. There is a big risk that ultimately a US company decides with a combination of algorithms and their idea of mainstream information, which pieces of information we receive. It is becoming more and more important to make sure that the consumer can access real news.

PS: Where is press ethics in this innovation?

TS: Press ethics is another big part of the discussion on AMP. Companies like Google and Facebook are able to decide on their own ethics, from political extremism, hate speech to nipples. This has led to the bizarre situation where you can read all the right-wing extremist hate, but cannot publish a picture of a naked breast. From a European perspective, that’s peculiar. I think it is very important that we find a common European position in the areas of press ethics and findability of news. We have to decide what is important for us. European values are human dignity, protection of minors and pluralism. How can we protect these values in the interest of the population as well as European industry? If we don’t do so, these rules will be overrun by ethics of US companies. I’d prefer to see Europe stand up for its principles.

PS: Ok, those are the principles, but we had recently the case of this Norwegian newspaper who published this famous historical picture of a girl photographed running naked from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War. Facebook first took the picture off the newspaper Facebook page and then put it back online. How do we guarantee the transparency of their editorial process ?

TS: Is a company like Facebook interested in issues we are discussing in Europe? Yes of course! Why not? But at the moment we don’t tell them what we would like them to do. As long as there are no rules they will use all opportunities.  When we clearly articulate what are our interests and put them into a legal framework, I am sure that a companies such as Google/YouTube and Facebook will abide by the law. They are not interested in acting illegally. They are just using the leeway they have at the moment which is normal. Europe has to set a legal framework for this.