It may sound like a bureaucratic offshoot of the European Union, but the European Broadcasting Union is a highly politicised body that is more than capable of rocking the broadcasting boat. Andy Fry celebrates its 50th.
In 1950, as Europe grappled with the arrival of the new mass-market medium of television, broadcasters from across the continent gathered on the English Riviera (aka Torquay) to form the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

The EBU was to act as a forum for the exchange of ideas and programming, but in recent years it has come most visibly under the spotlight for its stance on sports rights. Having decided in 1990 to dedicate itself to defending the public service ethos, it now regularly attracts the wrath of pay-TV operators over its efforts to keep sport and cultural events free to air.

Only last month the union renewed its contract with the International Amateur Athletics Federation's (IAAF) World Athletics Series. A month earlier, it beat off competition from sports marketing agencies to secure a£280 million deal for the broadcast rights to Uefa's Euro 2004 football championship in Portugal - a deal hailed by the union's secretary-general Jean-Bernard Munch as a 'victory for viewers'.

UK viewers are now guaranteed live coverage of the whole event on BBC and ITV - more than can be said for the 2002 World Cup, which Fifa sold to a Kirch/ISL consortium.

For the BBC, which has lost Test cricket and Formula One in the last two years, the power of the EBU has proved vital to maintaining some semblance of credibility as a live sports broadcaster.

Aside from sports, the union is known for its programme exchange operation and initiatives such as the Eurovision Song Contest and Jeux Sans Frontieres (see box). According to Munch, it is also particularly valued for its lobbying role. 'It is hard for broadcasters which operate within national boundaries to lobby organisations like the EU and the Council of Europe effectively,' he says. 'We can keep the public service debate alive in forums like Brussels.'

But the union itself faces the same competitive pressures as national public service broadcasters. Non-members see it not so much as a protector of the public interest as a protector of its members' vested interests.

In the UK, the issue has been thrown into relief by Talk Radio's launch of a legal offensive against the EBU claiming it is anti-competitive.

It wants the union to unbundle radio and TV sports rights.

Munch comments: 'I would be very unhappy if I was working in a media field where the only issue was driving market value.' But some of the union's members are doing just that. Take Vivendi-backed Canal+, which is an 'active' member of the union, yet runs the largest pay-TV platform in Europe and is periodically linked to merger talks with BSkyB - not the sort of business you might think of as a crusader in the name of public TV.

According to Munch, Canal+'s involvement is an anomaly - the result of having joined when union statutes were still being framed. 'A company like Canal+ would not be able to join the Union today,' he says, 'though we do benefit from gaining an insight into their corporate perspective.'

Canal+ is not the only member to have slipped the shackles of its public service heritage. ITV's race for share is not in itself outside the spirit of the union, but axing News at Ten to boost viewership probably is. Similarly, the move by Carlton and Granada to launch pay-TV platform On Digital stretches the notion of public service to the limit.

Critics suggest that broadcasters like ITV win all ways. If the union wins sports rights, ITV gets to share in the ad revenue spoils. If it loses, ITV can still go out and bid handsomely for UK free-to-air rights on its own account (witness Formula One). If On Digital grows into a viable business, it will be interesting to see whether the union model continues to hold much attraction within ITV.

Munch is pragmatic. 'Our strength is the ability to live with such complexities,' he says. 'If Europe is to maintain a strong public service ethos, we have to be willing to accommodate change. The reality is that all public service broadcasters are expected to diversify their sources of revenue.'

He also argues that the union operates from a position of strength. 'Some of our members could make alliances with pay-TV broadcasters on their own, but the union's relationship with sports federations is so strong that many of them wouldn't take that risk.'

This claim appears to be borne out by the fact that the union won Euro 2004 rights despite tabling a lower bid than rivals - an indication of how significant access to free platforms can be to sports federations.

Lamine Diack, president of the IAAF, confirms that the union is 'an essential part of the IAAF strategy, (which is) committed to maintaining athletics as a major popular televised sport'. The International Olympic Committee takes a similar view.

Some observers suggest the union would be best served by heading for the public service high ground and leaving the murky world of sports rights to the market. It could then concentrate on programme exchanges and the legal, technical and rights management support which is one of its least-known but most significant achievements.

But this pared-down model gets short shrift from Munch, who says that union members pulling out of popular programming 'is probably the biggest threat to our existence. We think public service broadcasting has to produce creative and distinctive content for the largest possible audiences if it is to play a serious role in a pluralist democracy.'

Munch says he expects the union's role to grow in importance in the coming decade. 'As the media business becomes more global, national broadcasters will need to have a clear understanding of international developments.

For public service broadcasters that will make the union's role even more significant.'

NOT JUST A SONG CONTESTFormed in Torquay in 1950 (above), the European Broadcasting Union now employees 252 people, most based in Geneva with 22 in Moscow and the US.

Turnover in 1998 was SFr 541.9 million (£200 million), of which£116 million went on sports rights and events and£50 million on network operations.

In 1999, the EBU shelled out£280 million for Euro 2004.

It also has Olympics rights until 2008. The official tally of members is 118 in 80 countries, though only 69 are active members based in Europe, Middle East and North Africa. All Europe's traditional public broadcasters are members.

In the UK, union bedfellows include the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Abroad, Ireland's RTE, Italy's RAI, Germany's ZDF and ARD, France Television and TF1 ensure key representation in every major TV market.

Radio is also strongly represented. The Euroradio network relays 2,000 concerts a year while the EBU radio department coordinates the transmission of 400 sports fixtures and 120 major news events with a potential audience of 400 million listeners.

It operates the Eurovision programme exchange operation. Every day, the union reckons to coordinate 15-20 exchanges of current events footage between members, reaching a total audience in excess of 255 million homes.

Over New Year, 660 hours of coverage were relayed between members. During the Kosovo war, more than 100,000 separate transmissions were exchanged.

In September 1999 it launched Radio Television Kosovo in Pristina, a locally produced news and information network with free access to Eurovision news and a $3 million (£1.85 million) investment from the UN and international donors.

In the children's market, otherwise dominated by US half-hours, the union has inspired successful homegrown animation series including Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah's Island. Jeux Sans Frontieres and the Eurovision Song Contest are also well-known EBU initiatives which, while passe in the UK, are popular elsewhere.