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EU launches antitrust case against Sky, studios

The European Commission is investigating Sky and six Hollywood majors, Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros., for agreeing country-specific content rights deals in the EU.

The Commission has sent a statement of objections to the parties alleging that they have put in place contractual restrictions preventing Sky UK from allowing EU consumers not resident in the UK or Ireland from viewing its pay TV services.

The Commission said that, if its preliminary findings are confirmed, each of the companies would have breached EU competition rules.

The Commission has identified clauses in the studios’ deals with Sky that require the latter to block access to films available through its online pay TV services or through its satellite services to consumers outside the licensed territory of the UK and Ireland.

“European consumers want to watch the pay TV channels of their choice regardless of where they live or travel in the EU,” said EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

“Our investigation shows that they cannot do this today, also because licensing agreements between the major film studios and Sky UK do not allow consumers in other EU countries to access Sky’s UK and Irish pay TV services, via satellite or online. We believe that this may be in breach of EU competition rules.”

According to EU rules, Sky should be able to accept unsolicited requests for its services from consumers in other member states. The Commission noted that some agreements also prevent the studios from selling rights to pay TV operators outside the UK that make their services available to consumers within the UK.

According to EU rules, rights that grant ‘absolute territorial exclusivity’, preventing cross-border competition, are in serious breach of EU rules.

The EC has previously expressed concern about deals between the studios and other broadcasters including Canal+, Spain’s DTS/Canal+ and Sky Deutschland and Sky Italia – the latter two now part of the wider Sky organisation.

Disney immediately condemned the Commission’s action and said it would oppose it.

“The Walt Disney Company is a leader in embracing new and innovative digital technologies that bring its unique entertainment to families and fans worldwide. Our approach is one that supports local creative industries, local digital and broadcast partners and most importantly consumers in every country across the EU,” it said in a statement. “The impact of the Commission’s analysis is destructive of consumer value and we will oppose the proposed action vigorously.”

NBCUniversal said: “NBCUniversal confirms that it has received a Statement of Objections from the European Commission regarding the cross-border provision of pay TV services. We will have the opportunity to formally respond to the Statement and are communicating constructively with the European Commission.”

A UK-based Warner Bros. spokesman said: “We are cooperating fully with the European Commission’s investigation. It is premature to comment further at this time.”

Sky released a statement that read: “The European Commission is examining cross border access to Pay TV services across a number of member states. As part of its ongoing enquiry, we have received a statement setting out the Commission’s preliminary views. We will consider this and respond in due course”

There was no reaction from Paramount or Sony.

The EU’s investigations in this area follow the 2011 EU Court of Justice ruling on a case pitting he English Premier League against a UK pub landlady who had shown foreign broadcasts of Premier League football matches on her premises, which found that territorially exclusive rights prevent competition by partitioning the market.

The statement of objections is a formal step, giving the recipients the right to reply before any further steps are taken. The investigation is open-ended and is likely to take some time to reach a conclusion, but potentially could have a dramatic impact on the pay TV business in Europe.