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#COVID-19 - Commercial TV plays role in bringing people together during crisis

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The Association of Commercial Television in Europe (ACT) expresses its support and solidarity to all those in the European Audiovisual sector and beyond who are mobilized to face the current crisis.

As European broadcasters, ACT is continually looking for ways to support the communities we serve; providing accurate and trusted news and information, bringing people together and delivering quality entertainment.  It is in times of deep national and international crisis that the unique qualities of broadcasting are most needed.

Our members are each taking actions to support their own national audiences, including prioritizing news and public health information, broadcasting official recommendations and donation requests, offering additional contents to their subscribers or lowering subscription costs, carrying out technical operations to prevent network congestion…

Regrettably, the role of media as providers of trustworthy reporting on COVID is continuously challenged online. The crisis has once again demonstrated the clear need for regulation of the internet where disinformation, conspiracy and fear campaigns have flourished, threatening to drown out quality news and information.

We face the current crisis in the context of challenges impacting the entire AV value chain. Broadcasters across Europe are not an exception. While TV viewership is experiencing a significant increase as viewers turn to trusted media and entertainment, free-to-air and pay TV players are facing a dramatic drop in advertising revenues (in some markets up to 80% for the month of April) and/or major disruptions in their programming due to the lack of availability of live sports events and delays in delivery of new contents.

Further, the production of all types of programmes is on hold, with some unlikely to resume or facing major financial consequences. This impact will increase as confinement measures are extended and the repercussions will be felt long after the confinement measures end.

In the short term, ACT calls on the European Commission to demonstrate flexibility in the application of state aid rules; in particular recognising the need for Member States to help their own national broadcasters withstand a major drop in revenue.  Such measures should include tax credits for advertising investments, a direct stimulus to the entire economy via the promotion of products and services during the recovery.

In addition, the European Commission can directly help, by extending and reorienting the Media Programme to ensure better access for operators most suited to restart productions across Europe. Broadcasters will also struggle to meet the strict and broad financial and content commitments they would perform in normal circumstances. In this regard, the crisis will only aggravate the lack of a level playing field with the digital sphere.

The European Commission in close cooperation with the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services, should thus develop guidance to enact leniency (such as standstill periods for quota obligations) and liberalization measures to ensure Broadcasters can rebound from the crisis.

While these measures may provide temporary relief, they will not be enough to ensure the long-term sustainability of European broadcasting which was already under threat pre-Covid from largely unfair market conditions in the digital environment.  The European Commission, by way of the Digital Services Act, the AV Action Plan and the Democracy Action Plan, has the means to bring structural changes to the digital environment. This means:

-          Pro-competitive structural changes to deliver a level playing field and fair competition in the digital sphere, ensuring notably that broadcasters have fair access to the data they generate whilst enabling the vast revenues generated by digital advertising to be redirected to Europe’s creative ecosystem;

-          liability rules that ensure Europe’s creative industries’ rights are upheld online, its creations properly protected and valued, and online disinformation properly tackled and sanctioned, and;

-          liberalization measures to allow Broadcasters to continue playing their essential role as defenders of cultural diversity, media pluralism and investors in high quality local and national news and jobs.

ACT stands ready to work with European policy-makers and regulators to ensure we adequately assess and respond to the immediate and long-term challenges thereby ensuring the sustainability of this vital national and international resource.

Background

The Association of Commercial Television in Europe represents the interests of 29 leading commercial broadcasters across Europe. The ACT member companies finance, produce, promote and distribute content and services benefiting millions of Europeans across all platforms.  At ACT we believe that the healthy and sustainable commercial broadcasting sector has an important role to play in the European economy, society and culture.

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COVID-19 vaccinations: More solidarity and transparency needed 

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MEPs supported the EU's common approach to fighting COVID-19 and called for more unity and clarity during a debate on the roll-out of vaccines and the EU's vaccines strategy.

During a plenary debate on 19 January about the EU’s strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations, most MEPs expressed support for the EU's common approach, which ensured the quick development and access to safe vaccines. However, they called for even more solidarity when it comes to vaccinations and transparency regarding contracts with pharmaceutical companies.

Esther de Lange (EPP, Netherlands) said: “Only more transparency can take away the widespread perception – whether this is justified or not – that often, too often, profit is put before people in this (pharmaceutical) industry.” She praised the EU's joint purchase of vaccines, which led to a stronger negotiation position than individual EU countries would have had: “That means more vaccines for a better price and under better conditions. It shows what Europe can do when we stand united. We can help save lives.”

Iratxe García Pérez (S&D, Spain) warned against "health nationalism" that could damage cooperation on vaccines in Europe. According to her, solidarity and unity is the answer: “If we can keep unity and have equitable distribution of vaccines in member states, we have reasons to believe that 380 million European citizens will be vaccinated by the summer. This is a scientific and health feat that cannot be ruined by parallel contracts and direct purchases." She added: "Let us speak with one voice so that the largest vaccination campaign in history will bring hope back to us in 2021.”

“What are we doing exactly to increase the speed of administering vaccines across the EU?” asked Dacian Cioloș (Renew, Romania). “I know this is a race against time, but in this race we cannot forget that we have a responsibility to do things in full transparency, a responsibility to our citizens to gain their trust. That trust is largely what the vaccination campaign depends on."

Joëlle Mélin (ID, France) said the negotiation of the vaccine contracts lacked transparency. “We are now in the distribution phase and we discover that there are shortages and broken promises from the pharmaceutical companies,” she added.

Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA) also talked about the need for transparency and the fact that the European Commission kept the contracts with laboratories secret: “This opaqueness is an insult to democracy. In every single contract the buyer has to know what he or she is buying at what conditions and what price.” He also spoke about potential liability issues: “It is crucial to know who will hold the liability if there were to be negative side effects of the vaccination - would it be the public decision makers or would it be the drug makers? We have no idea.”

Joanna Kopcińska (ECR, Poland) said the decision for the common vaccination strategy was right: “We need an overarching strategy and of course scepticism has a lot to do with a fear that the vaccination is moving slowly, the delivery is maybe late and the contracts are not transparent." She called for the systematic update of treatment strategies and appropriate information campaigns that reach out to everyone.

Marc Botenga (The Left, Belgium) called for more transparency of contracts and responsibility from pharmaceutical companies. He criticised uneven access to vaccines globally, noting poorer regions have difficulties obtaining enough vaccines. “No profit needs to be made on this pandemic and we certainly do not want segregation at vaccinations.”

Plenary debate on the EU global strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations Some of the speakers during the debate on COVID-19 vaccinations  

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides assured MEPs that their calls for transparency had been heard. She welcomed the fact that the first of the vaccine suppliers had agreed to make the text of their contract available and said the Commission was working to get other producers to do the same.

Kyriakides said she expects to see more applications for the authorisation of vaccines in the coming months. She stressed the importance of a global approach: “No country will be safe and no economy will truly recover until the virus is under control in all continents." She also talked about Covax - the global facility to ensure fair and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines that the EU helped to set up - which aims to purchase two billion doses by the end of 2021, including more than 1.3 billion for lower- and middle-income countries.

Ana Paula Zacarias, the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs who was speaking on behalf of the Council, said the common EU approach, which sped up the process of developing, authorising and securing access to vaccines, must continue to ensure the availability and efficient rollout of vaccines in all member states.

Zacarias said that a number of issues still need to be resolved, including the format and role of the vaccination certificate, a common approach on the use and validation of antigen rapid tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results.

Backgound: Race for vaccines

From the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the European Parliament has closely followed the vaccine research and development process. The EU coordinated a joint effort to secure the speedy deployment of vaccines against the disease, through the mobilization of hundreds of million euro for research projects and more flexible procedures. Parliament approved a temporary derogation from certain rules for clinical trials to allow vaccines to be developed faster.

MEPs on the health committee repeatedly highlighted the need for public trust in vaccines and the importance of fighting disinformation and asked for more transparency regarding vaccine contracts, authorization and deployment in the EU.

Under the EU Vaccines Strategy launched in June 2020, the Commission negotiated and concluded advance purchase agreements with vaccines developers on behalf of EU countries; the EU covers part of the costs faced by the producers in return for the right to buy a specified amount of vaccine doses in a given timeframe and at a given price, once they are granted market authorisation. So far, six contracts with pharmaceutical companies have been concluded.

After scientific evaluation and positive recommendation by the European Medicines Agency, the European Commission  granted conditional market authorisation to the first vaccine against Covid-19, developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, on 21 December 2020. Vaccinations across the EU started shortly afterwards on 27 December. On 6 January 2021, Moderna’s vaccine was given conditional market authorisation. The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca could be authorised by the end of January.

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EU leaders weigh travel curbs over virus variant fears

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European Union leaders were seeking on Thursday (21 January) to address the coronavirus pandemic’s mounting challenges, including increased calls to limit travel and tighten border controls to contain more infectious variants of the disease, writes .

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before an evening leaders’ video conference that European countries needed to take the new mutation found in Britain seriously to avoid a third wave.

“We can’t rule out border closures, but want to prevent them though cooperation within the European Union,” she told a news conference in Berlin.

Leaders, who have full control over their own borders, were discussing testing protocols for cross-border commuters, she added.

Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, where cases per capita are lower than in its neighbours, said he would ask fellow EU leaders to halt non-essential travel, such as tourism.

“The slightest spark could push the figures back up again. We need to protect our good position,” he told broadcaster VRT.

The heads of EU institutions have urged the leaders to maintain unity and step up testing and vaccinations, though Merkel said she expected no formal decisions to be taken at the meeting from 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), the ninth of its kind since the pandemic began.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that blanket border closures made no sense and were not as effective as targeted measures.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country relies on commuters from its neighbours, told Deutschlandfunk radio that border closures were wrong in 2020 and still wrong in 2021.

The EU executive also wants member states to agree a common approach to vaccination certificates by the end of January. So a certificate from Estonia would be accepted in Portugal, for example.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis floated the idea last week that they could help restore cross-border travel. Spain is pushing the idea within the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), its foreign minister said on Thursday.

EU diplomats said this was premature as it was not yet clear if vaccinated people could still transmit the virus to others.

“As for (non-EU) third countries, then you’d have to look into whether to accept Russian or Chinese vaccines,” one added.

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Extended lockdown needed to slow spread of COVID mutation - Merkel

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Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) on Thursday (21 January) defended a decision to extend a hard lockdown in Germany by two weeks until mid-February, saying it was necessary to slow a new and more aggressive variant of the coronavirus, write Thomas Escritt and Riham Alkousaa.

Speaking at a news conference, Merkel said that while restrictions were showing results in the form of fewer new infections, it would be a mistake to ease curbs given the mutation had been identified in Germany.

“Our efforts face a threat and this threat is clearer now than at the start of the year and this is the mutation of the virus,” said Merkel.

“The findings show that the mutated virus is much more infectious than the one we have had for a year and this is a main reason for the aggressive rise in infections in England and Ireland.”

Merkel said the mutation was still not dominant in Germany and that only a cautious approach could prevent an aggressive rise in daily new infections caused by the new variant first identified in England.

Germany, which has been in lockdown since early November, reported more than 1,000 deaths and more than 20,000 new infections on Thursday. Merkel and state leaders agreed on Tuesday to extend a hard lockdown that keeps schools, restaurants and all non-essential businesses shut until Feb. 14.

“This mutation has been identified in Germany but it is not dominant, at least not yet,” said Merkel. “Still, we need to take the threat posed by this mutation very seriously. We need to slow the spread of this mutation as much as possible.”

She added: “We cannot wait for this threat to hit us, meaning an aggressive increase in infections, that would be too late to prevent a third wave of the pandemic. We can still prevent this. We still have some time.”

Merkel said vaccines can be adapted for new variants of the virus and Germany should be able to vaccinate everyone by the end of the summer.

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