There is a strong tradition of public service broadcasting in Europe and regulation has evolved to provide almost universal access to such services. Many service providers, such as cable companies, are obliged to carry certain channels with appropriate prominence, but the rules vary significantly across Europe. A comprehensive report for the European Commission summarises the must-carry rules in 34 European countries. The regulations have interesting implications for the availability of online services.

Must-carry rules serve to ensure the delivery of specific types of public service or special interest programming and the place obligations and sometimes burdens of costs on distribution platforms.

The regulations generally apply to the programming of public service broadcasters but in several countries, including the United Kingdom and Germany, the legacy free-to-air commercial broadcasters are also included. A range of other types of channels including local, community, regional channels may also be designated must-carry in some countries. In some cases the public channels of neighbouring countries, or international cultural or news channels may also be must-carry.

The report also covers other forms of regulation, such as must-offer, the corollary of must-carry, and must-find or must-see, which relate to prominence in service listings.

Must-carry remains contentious due to the obligations placed on distributors and issues of cost, which may affect either the distributor or the broadcaster, or both.

The must-carry concept was originally focused on cable systems. There are no must-carry rules in Greece or Italy, where there are no significant cable television systems.

In the United Kingdom, the must-carry and must-offer rules are incorporated into the Communications Act of 2003, which established the communications regulator Ofcom. The conditions are technology neutral and relate to networks that are used by a significant number of end-users as their principal means of receiving television programmes. The obligations cover any service of television programmes provided by the BBC; the services of Channel 3, as provided by ITV; Channel 4; Channel 5; and S4C. So far, Ofcom has not made any direction under these conditions and no provider is subject to a must-carry obligation. The services involved account for the majority of television viewing and operators have provided them in any case.

Although not covered in the report, the must-offer regulations have been applied to permit TV Catchup to carry the public service channels as part of its online offer, together with other channels licensed by agreement. It is also unclear whether must-offer rules apply to catch-up programming from the relevant services.

Interestingly, some broadcasters have been arguing for commercial compensation or carriage agreements in return for distribution by network operators. This is a lucrative source of revenue for broadcasters in the United States.

What is clear is that there is a range of regulation across Europe with regard to must-carry and must-offer services. The picture is further confused by the emergence of new forms of distribution and the adoption of online video services.

Nevertheless, this free 200-page report, published by the European Audiovisual Observatory, provides a useful survey of the current situation in Europe. The report also covers the status of digital terrestrial television in Europe and channel availability.

The report covers the 28 member states of the European Union and six additional countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Norway, the Republic of Serbia and Switzerland. It is based on the responses from regulators in these countries, supported by additional research.

Access to TV platforms: must-carry rules, and access to free-DTT is published by the European Audiovisual Observatory for the European Commission.