Threat of national TV quotas in Latin America

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BUENOS AIRES -- There are worries within the Latin American pay-TV industry that government regulators are focusing on them. Local content quotas and state censorship were among the concerns raised by foreign attendants at last week's Jornadas de Television por Cable, Latin America's biggest pay TV conference.

After watching the Latin pay TV industry grow relatively unhampered by government interference (other than Mexico, where foreign ad supported programs must carry at least 20% local content), foreigners are worried about recent events.

"It's making me very concerned about what could happen," said Gems Television boss Gary McBride. "It's reminiscent of the situation in Mexico and that's what scares everyone."

In May, Argentina's COMFER television and radio regulatory body issued a decree which would have forced local operators to have programming lineups consisting of at least 51% "local origin" signals. By that it meant simply local uplinking. Program content was not addressed. Though the decree was tabled in August and the COMFER is being absorbed by other government agencies, few have left it for dead. Foreign programming sources cite two factors prompting the proposal: local programmers trying to protect an increasingly-crowded turf, and a government looking for another revenue source.

Ronnie Amendolara, director of Argentine programmer and distributor Imagen Satelital, denies any push by locals. "That's crazy," he said of the proposal. "We represent six foreign channels here."

Since the proposal also would have forced all programmers to file a paid registration with the COMFER, a financial initiative still remains likely. The government has already found one new revenue stream. Beginning in November, programmers will have to submit their feature films to the National Cinema Institute for a six-month period. The federally-funded institute will charge programmers $500 a month to rate their films and decide whether or not they can air before the "child-protection" hour of 10 p.m.

TNT Latin America Senior V-P and General Manager Charlotte Leonard says that, while most of her channel's films should be little affected by the new process, programmers will play along.

"Nobody wants to look like the gringo," she says. "We just want to do business." She adds that the Brazilian government is looking to push a similar ratings mandate.Meanwhile, in Chile, a ratings push has already shown a backlash. In September, cable operators voluntarily blacked-out 130 films after a year of warnings from the government that risque features were running prior to 10 p.m.

Copyright October 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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