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The European audio-visual landscape: enabling cultural diversity

MeCETES Project Leader Andrew Higson on the role film and television drama can play in enabling cultural diversity in Europe.

The European audio-visual landscape is a complex space in which a variety of agents jostle for control. Creative control depends, on the one hand, on the creative talent: directors, producers, showrunners, writers. On the other hand, it is circumscribed by the interests of public and private funders, broadcasting executives, commissioners, sales agents and distributors.

Then there is the political dimension and its relation to the broader economy, with audio-visual policy being developed and enacted at national, supra-national, local and regional levels, and the largest and most powerful industry players attempting to control: the market.

IdaBut is size everything? After all, as films like Ida or television dramas like The Bridge demonstrate, it is still possible to address big ideas in small productions, to tell complex stories in interesting ways, to develop unique and challenging characters, and explore ideas of cultural diversity and local specificity.

It is equally possible to do this in big productions too, and we should be wary of arguments that present Hollywood as a behemoth, as barbaric, cannibalising other cultures and talents for its own benefit. The same applies to Netflix and the American-based cable operators and content creators.

From that perspective, we should be wary of the simplistic idea that the European creative industries and European cultural practices can be understood as by definition a ‘good thing’ simply because they are ‘not Hollywood’, or ‘not Netflix’. The European creative industries and cultural practices are part of a global network of interconnections that mean they are in all sorts of ways interdependent on the major players, the Hollywood studios and the Netflixes.

And those networks, and the ways that different players interact in the market-place, mean that small, locally-specific cultural productions can still reach audiences in the context of globalisation. The local is not destroyed by the global; small films and ideas-driven television drama do still get made and still get watched and discussed. Independent producers and niche audiences still engage with one another, thereby enabling diverse voices to be heard.

Nations and borders

Despite the extent of globalisation and digitisation, we are clearly still some way from a media business that knows no borders. There is most certainly not yet a single European market, and there are still a great many frontiers and boundaries to negotiate: national borders, language differences and local accents, territorial relations between production funding and distribution, taste boundaries and so on.

The national and the local are still clearly meaningful entities in relation to cultural practices, identity, business transactions and audio-visual storytelling. Nations are still rich repositories of cultural specificity, local traditions and competing heritages.

In this context, the idea of a digital single market seems eminently attractive and full of possibilities, not least if it can overcome the current highly fragmented nature of the market. But if the European Commission’s vision of a digital single market is to work productively for all players, it will need to be regulated by a system of checks and balances if it is to enhance the production and circulation of and access to diverse cultural material.

The MeCETES project that hosts this blog is working hard to map the current audio-visual landscape, the development of new models for creative production, new platforms through which audiences can engage with that material and new versions of the film and television market. It is also seeking to establish the most effective national and supra-national policy measures to ensure a rich, culturally diverse European audio-visual ecosystem.

We have examined what actually gets made, where and by what means, but also what travels, and under what circumstances. There is of course a huge variety of film and television drama made in Europe, from big productions shot in English – the global language – to small productions made in local or national languages and telling much more modest or narrowly focused stories. While size cannot determine creative ambition, scale of activity clearly plays a vital role in the European audio-visual ecosystem.

Maintaining cultural diversity

A healthy cultural and creative sector cannot, however, simply be one in which production is prolific. Indeed, one of the most challenging issues for European film is that of over-abundance: there is simply too much material being produced for it all to find a meaningful place in the market, the locus in which audiences are able to engage with stories, characters and ideas.

The neo-liberal discourse of consumer choice cannot adequately account for the ways in which audiences actually engage with and make sense of cultural products, and the difficulty of identifying and accessing potentially interesting material. To that extent, audio-visual policy needs to address matters of access and circulation – distribution, in other words – as much as production.

Through the MeCETES project, we have entered into dialogue with both academics and industry and policy players, in order to understand the structure of the audio-visual industries, the organisation of businesses both large and small and the ways in which individual agents operate in those contexts, how they collaborate across borders and around particular projects. Who is able and prepared to take what sorts of risks under what sorts of circumstances?

We are also seeking to develop a better understanding of audiences across Europe, examining patterns of consumption and differential reception: what do audiences do with the ‘content’, with the ‘products’, when they are able to access them? But also what sorts of measures need to be adopted to encourage interest in and demand for a diverse range of films and television drama series?

In particular, how can the European audio-visual eco-system be best developed to encourage and enable a collective sense of both local and European citizenship rather than simply individual consumption? In that context, can we afford to lose the current principles and practices of the European public service broadcasters, currently under so much threat?

Central to the MeCETES project is the question of how we can ensure and maintain cultural diversity in the production, circulation and engaged consumption of European film and television drama. How can we ensure that small, local language productions can both be seen in the national markets to which they seem to belong, but also travel to non-national markets?

We argue that tolerance for and appreciation of cultural diversity can be enabled through ensuring as wide a range of people as possible are able to tell and engage with stories that speak to our circumstances as citizens of contemporary Europe.

We therefore think it is vital that we make it possible in Europe to tell a range of different kinds of stories, embracing a range of characters and ideas, that we ensure those stories are as widely accessible as possible, and that we encourage forms of educated citizenship that can enable audiences to engage critically and perceptively with those stories, while recognising that different sorts of films appeal to different sorts of audiences and interest groups.

Our vision is of an interactive, collaborative European public, and a shared European cultural sphere in which a wide range of citizens can participate and engage actively with films, with ideas, with filmmakers and with each other.

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