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Nations Wary of U.S. Culture Plan Alliance

July 01, 1998|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OTTAWA — Officials from 19 countries, reacting to fears that the world is engulfed in a rising tide of U.S.-produced movies, television, music and other entertainment, took the first tentative steps Tuesday toward forming a protective international cultural alliance.

Government ministers from Europe, Latin America and Africa met here at the invitation of Canada's top cultural official, Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, and agreed to form a working group aimed at giving cultural issues greater prominence in foreign policy, trade and investment negotiations.

"We have to build some ground rules to make sure that culture is not treated like any other commodity," said Copps, who in the past has accused the United States of doing just that.

The conference grows out of increasing concern internationally that U.S.-produced entertainment is threatening to crowd local artists out of their home markets--and that what millions of people around the world watch on their television sets and movie screens and hear on the radio is largely determined by a shrinking number of executives living in Los Angeles and New York.

But overt criticism of what Copps once called "the Hollywood juggernaut" was restrained in the closed-door meeting here, according to several observers. Participants instead referred to cultural "globalization" and the need to preserve diversity and distinctiveness.

Exactly how they will reach those goals was not determined Tuesday. The ministers announced modest initiatives for increased cooperation in international television broadcasting and production of culturally oriented Web sites on the Internet, and said they will meet again next year in Mexico and in 2000 in Greece.

"This is just the start," said Mark Fisher, the British arts minister. "All we have done today is identify the landscape and set the agenda."

The United States was not invited, ostensibly because there is no culture minister in Washington. U.S. officials were skeptical of that explanation and protested. As a result, the U.S. Embassy was permitted to send two observers, who were braced for the familiar criticisms that have been leveled at U.S. entertainment.

The U.S. officials declined to comment on the record but raised no objections to what they heard, according to participants.

In Los Angeles, Patti Archuletta, director of the California Film Commission, expressed frustration that Canada in particular seems to want it "both ways" when it comes to American entertainment.

"There is a flood of production work going to Canada; that's revenue and jobs flowing directly out of California," said Archuletta. "They're luring American producers to film American product there, through foreign subsidies. But then they say, you can't show the product here."

Tuesday's meeting is the culmination of a yearlong effort by Copps to align Canada with other countries concerned about U.S. cultural domination, but it represents just a limited success. Fewer than half the 40 countries invited agreed to participate.

Attendees ranged from Sweden to Iceland and Ukraine to the Ivory Coast. Taking the lead on planning for the upcoming meetings will be Canada, Mexico, Greece and Sweden.

Even some of Copps' colleagues in the Canadian government have openly questioned her aggressive approach and suggested it might boomerang against Canada, which now is the second-largest exporter of television programming after the United States.

Nonetheless, the turnout from three continents seemed to reflect a broadening concern around the world over the phenomenon of Hollywood hegemony, an issue that until now has largely been taken up by the Canadians and the French.

Surprisingly, France sent only a mid-level Finance Ministry official to observe the session. French Cultural Minister Catherine Trautmann opted instead to attend a pan-European Socialist meeting.

Several ministers privately questioned the exclusion of the United States, a decision that Copps defended at a news conference Tuesday. But several participants said the United States will eventually have to be included in such meetings.

"There has to be a constructive engagement of all countries," said Mia Mottley, Barbados' minister of education, youth and culture. "That includes the United States, especially since America is seen by many as promoting most strongly a single prescription for advancing almost all human endeavor."

Leading up to the meeting, Copps suggested that Canadian cultural policies, which include restrictions on foreign ownership and requirements that radio stations and television broadcasters devote a major portion of their air time to Canadian performers, could be used as a model by other nations. Those policies, however, frequently have clashed with U.S. efforts to ensure free trade in entertainment.

Last year, for example, the World Trade Organization, in an action brought by the United States, overturned a Canadian tax intended to prevent Time Warner from publishing a Canadian edition of Sports Illustrated.

The case illustrates the difficulty of determining where to draw the line between culture and commerce. In this instance, the U.S. saw it as a commercial issue, while Canada viewed it as a necessary cultural protection of its own magazine publishers.

Officials acknowledged there was no consensus and little discussion Tuesday of such tough-to-resolve issues.

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