Brexit prompts its first Irish TV licence application

Regulator in ‘conversations’ with London services amid fears channels will go dark

The Irish broadcasting regulator has received its first licence application from a UK-based broadcaster that wants to keep its access to viewers in the European Union after Brexit.

As many as 500 pan-European channels currently based in London use a licence from UK regulator Ofcom to broadcast services to audiences in other EU markets.

They will likely require a new licence from another EU member state, once any Brexit deal transition period expires, in order to retain this access. However, to date most companies have taken a wait-and-see approach as Brexit negotiations continue.

"We have received our first application - and I can't say who it is - for a Section 71 contract from a service that is based in the UK, and that has happened in the last seven days," said Michael O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI).

Under the “country of origin” principle in EU media law, a broadcaster with a licence in any EU state can broadcast into any other EU market. Member states have the right to prevent the broadcast of unlicensed services, but do not have an obligation to do so.

There is an outside chance that channels may “go dark” in the event of a no-deal Brexit, which would effectively invalidate hundreds of licences. European pay-TV satellite company Sky recently urged the channels it carries to ensure they still have an EU licence after Brexit.

Mr O’Keeffe told the Mediacon television and content summit in Dublin that the regulator had held “conversations” with UK-based services over the past two years and that these had evolved from inquiries to “concrete one-to-one meetings”.

Mr O’Keeffe said the first applicant was “getting in early” and had not signed a contract yet. A no-deal Brexit was “obviously a worst-case scenario”, he added, but the regulator will be examining contingency plans in the new year if it looks like existing licences might be invalidated overnight.

“We can’t have a cliff-edge on March 30th where channels go dark.”

Licensing hub

Media consultant Simon Kelehan said there was "a great opportunity" for Ireland to establish itself as a licensing hub for broadcasters post-Brexit.

“Ireland has a reputation for being the land of the storyteller, but this actually makes it real,” he said.

Ireland’s favourable corporate tax regime, English-speaking status and similar regulatory regime to the UK is likely to appeal to some broadcasters, particularly the US giants currently running their European services out of London.

However, Malta, Estonia and Luxembourg are other possible relocation choices, while it is expected that broadcasters will retain the bulk of their operations in London.

Aideen Burke, a media law expert from firm LK Shields, said broadcasters would likely relocate employees concerned with EU regulation, but keep their editorial workforces in London.