With the support of technological advances, audiovisual services have exploded in recent decades. According to the World Trade Organization (WTO), audiovisual services include motion picture production and distribution services, motion picture projection services, radio and television services, radio and television transmission services and sound recording.
These services are now to a large extent digitally produced. The production and transmission of content on a growing number of platforms and devices mean content can be consumed freely, anywhere in the world. This availability across borders has implications for trade.
In this context, audiovisual services is a complex sector, because when governments regulate it, they grapple with a range of economic, social, and cultural objectives. Their policies might be protective as they seek to foster domestic production or safeguard cultural specificity, or more open if they wish to ensure a broad range of choices. Countries often prioritize moral standards and therefore regulate access to sensitive or illicit content. Advertising standards for audiovisual services are also a policy staple, as is intellectual property rights protection.
Training as part of series on services under GATS
The sector falls under the disciplines of the WTO – notably the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). It is a relatively recent addition to the GATS. It was only included in services negotiations in 2000, and only 41 countries have made specific commitments (less than a third of WTO Members). Developing countries have contributed a significant part to these commitments, and so have countries that have acceded to the WTO.
Uzbekistan negotiators recently received training to familiarize themselves with the concepts, terminology and rules of the audiovisual sector in GATS negotiations. The training formed part of a series of technical workshops in the area of services trade, organized by the International Trade Centre (ITC) on 2 March 2022, through its European Union-funded project: ‘Facilitating the process of Uzbekistan's accession to the WTO’.
The training set out the structure of the GATS and its four modes of supply. A backgrounder to negotiations showed how audiovisual services have been treated under the GATS and what the links are to cultural objectives.The training also covered key features of trade in audiovisual services and how the sector is classified in the Services Sectoral Classification List.
Flexibility under the GATS
Owing to the leap in technological developments since the sector was added to the GATS, several issues remain unresolved in the audiovisual services sector classification. For instance, the online streaming of audiovisual content (including movies, television programming, videos and music) and multi-channel television (cable, phone-line and satellite) remain undefined. There is also no definition of ‘sound recording’.
The workshop drilled into the features of GATS commitments in the areas of market access and national treatment and how commitments are scheduled. It also covered the typical limitations countries impose when they make commitments, and the key trade barriers faced.
Acceding governments, however, benefit from the same flexibility that applies to the GATS generally, which leaves it to members to select and craft their commitments in the area of audiovisual services.
Some examples of the limitations that countries set in their commitments include minimum foreign investment thresholds, joint venture requirements, foreign equity limits and content quotas. Under the latter, the import of titles, for instance, may be restricted to a set number per year.
Representatives of the Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade (MIFT), who lead Uzbekistan’s negotiations at the WTO, benefited from the training. Other participants included representatives of the Ministry for Economic Development and Poverty Reduction, the National Television and Radio Company of Uzbekistan, the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry for Development of Information Technologies and Communications.
Previous technical workshops in the series on services trade have covered environmental services, distribution services, and telecommunications. More services sectors may be earmarked for sessions, depending on the need indicated by the MIFT.