Regulatory structures

IRIS Plus 2013-4: What Is an On-demand Service?

Author: Francisco Javier Cabrera Blázquez, European Audiovisual Observatory

Published: 01/09/2013

The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'

Few songwriters have captured the presentiment of change as Bob Dylan in his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'". Although written in a very particular period of the twentieth Century, its message is universal and therefore can be applied to virtually any moment in time. Indeed, the fight between the Old and the New is a constant in the history of Mankind. In that sense, Dylan's song perfectly fits the Internet age: while old media giants currently struggle with fast-paced technological developments, new online companies started by teenagers in garages and universities are taking the world by storm. The generational gap evoked by Dylan is also evident, with parents feeling that, paraphrasing the song's lyrics, their children's online activities are "beyond their command".

On-demand services have radically changed the way people communicate, inform and entertain themselves. And as with any important changes, there are always those who try to stall things, those who believe in absolute freedom and finally those who ask for regulation to protect the diverse interests at stake. In Europe, the first discussions concerning how to deal with new on-demand audiovisual services took place in the early 2000s. At that time, the EU's Television without Frontiers Directive only covered traditional television, but with the development of new services providing content similar to that offered on TV it was felt that a review of the regulatory framework was needed. This was achieved in 2007 with the adoption of the Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive, which contains the set of specific rules applying to traditional broadcasting and to those on-demand services considered to be in competition with traditional television.

Given its "TV-centric" approach, the AVMS Directive did not aim at regulating all the audiovisual content available online. However, with the exponential development of video offerings on the Internet and their growing impact on minors and the public at large (YouTube being its most obvious example), it has become fashionable to criticise the rationale of regulating on-demand services in such a narrow way.

This article analyses whether or not on-demand AVMS really resemble traditional broadcasting and to what extent the two compete with each other. It explains the scope of the AVMS Directive and provides examples of its implementation in the national legislation of some EU member states. Furthermore it discusses cases in which the scope of the AVMS Directive seems unclear and describes relevant decisions taken by national regulatory authorities.