European regulators file antitrust claims against 6 major U.S. studios

Mickey Mouse was created by Walt Disney studio. (istockphoto)
Mickey Mouse was created by Walt Disney studio. (istockphoto)

By Brian Murphy and Jacob Bogage

The European Union filed antitrust claims Thursday against a British broadcaster and six major U.S. film studios, including global powerhouse Disney, accusing the companies of unfairly limiting pan-European access to programming on pay-TV services.

The charges stem from investigations launched in 2012 into whether satellite or streaming services possibly restricted customers across the 28-nation European Union from viewing some programming — and instead limited audiences to specific regional zones, sometimes known as “geo-blocking,” or “windowing.”

The process allows studios to vary the price-point at which they sell content by releasing programming in different areas at different prices at different times, say economists familiar with the practice.

But regulators claim the studios restrict full access to movies and other content — violating rules on the free flow of commerce and trade across E.U. borders. Among the allegations is that Sky subscribers are blocked from seeing its full offerings of films and television series once outside Britain and Ireland.

In January, a group of top European pay-networks and the American studios were formally advised of the probe.

The decision Thursday appeared to narrow the case to specifically cite complaints against British network Sky UK and the six studios: Disney, NBCUniversal, Paramount Pictures, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Bros.

“People expect to get all content everywhere all the time and the distribution for movies has never been that way,” said Jeffrey Eisenach, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Windowing is deeply embedded in the content distribution marketplace. And as distribution becomes more global and the market becomes more global, it causes consumer annoyance and that’s starting to be addressed.”

Twentyfirst Century Fox, which owns Twentieth Century Fox, declined comment. The other American film studios did not reply to requests for comment.

Sky UK in a statement said it would consider the complaint and “respond in due course.”

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

The action Thursday includes a “statement of objections,” which clears the way for possible further action and the potential for stiff fines.

The commission said it was also examining similar cases involving Canal Plus of France, Sky Italia, Sky Deutschland and Spain’s DTS network.


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