Leading Article: Hamburgers are more to the world's taste

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The Independent Online
IT IS EASY to see why the French are worried. Subjection of the film and television industries to Gatt rules on international trade, as the European Commission intends, would make it harder for them to continue subsidising their film industry, and would increase the already high number of American programmes on European television stations. Would this be a cultural disaster - or is Carla Hills, the US trade representative, right to think that, if their films were as good as their cheese, the French would export them more easily?

The answer is probably neither. Hollywood and the US television industry will always find it easy to sell abroad. Most people in the world are more curious about the United States, its people, society and government than about Japan, China, Europe or Russia. The language also helps: many people are only too happy to see US films and programmes undubbed - and give themselves a free English lesson on the side.

American directors seem also to have a knack for crossing cultural boundaries. Few people who saw three recent Hollywood products - Sleepless in Seattle, The Fugitive and In the Line of Fire - could fail to be excited, moved or amused by them. It is too easy to dismiss this quality as the cultural equivalent of the hamburger, appealing to all in a way an omelette aux fines herbes cannot.

Europeans - and especially the French - are prone to forget that it is not only in their own countries that American culture is winning adherents. The Japanese, who are more different from Americans than Europeans are, and who can claim a proud history utterly alien to US traditions, provide a market for Hollywood films bigger than anywhere outside the United States itself.

It is easy to see the allure of pleas for the preservation of European culture. The EC already asks its member states 'as far as practicable' to require their television stations to broadcast a majority of locally made programmes (though only France takes the rule seriously). American-made films already fill four out of five cinema seats in Europe, and the proportion is rising.

Yet in the end, technology may doom any attempt at protectionism. Quotas on foreign products may have been practicable when each country had only a handful of national television and radio stations; in the era of satellite, cable, video and (soon) films sent down telephone lines, rules that work would be intolerably intrusive. Far better to bring television and film under the umbrella of international trading rules, and seek other ways of preserving our cultural identities.