Public service broadcasting (PSB) is funded by the public, and regulated to ensure that it serves the public interest. Public service broadcasters (PSBs) should be distinguished from state broadcasters, which function mainly to serve the interests of the government, and purely commercial broadcasters, which respond primarily to individual consumer choices rather than to any notion of the broader public interest. PSBs are also distinct from nonprofit local “community broadcasters,” which are public-oriented and partly grant-funded, in that PSBs are generally national in scope.
Almost all countries have some form of national public service as part of their broadcasting ecology, but the size, type, and form of public service broadcasting intervention varies. In Japan and Britain, for example, PSB is funded by a universal license fee and accounts for a significant proportion of all media viewing and listening. In other countries, for example the USA, PSBs rely on less secure forms of funding, such as donations, and only a small fraction of all media use is of PSB content.
The Aims and Basic Structures of Public Service Broadcasting
Dimensions in Public Service Broadcasting’s Societal Functions
The legal basis of the well-established public broadcasting system in Germany can serve as an example for the variety of functions that are expected from the broadcasters. According to German constitutional law scholar Bernd Holznagel, the functional remit of public broadcasters covers eight basic dimensions:
- Information remit: the PSB has a duty to convey objective information as a basis for the free forming of opinions. Coverage, therefore, has to be comprehensive, truthful and factual.
- Guiding role: as a source of independent and unbiased information, PSB provides reliable, credible reference points and, consequently, guidance for a free forming of opinion.
- Role of forum: PSB has to ensure that all relevant opinions on a particular subject receive a hearing. They have to offer a forum for public discussion in which the relevant social groups can participate.
- Integration role: PSB should aim for mutual understanding and, thus, foster social cohesion.
- Benchmark: PSB has the obligation to provide guiding, high-quality, and innovative programming. In this way they set standards.
- Cultural mission: PSB programming has to reflect Germany’s cultural diversity and the events taking place in all the regions of the country.
- Mission to produce: appropriate fulfilment of the respective obligations cannot be guaranteed by the mere acquisition of foreign productions. Because of that, PSB has a mission to produce independently and creatively.
- Innovative role: PSB is encouraged to take an innovative lead in testing and using new technology and new services in the broadcasting sector. (Holznagel 2000, 2)
In order to achieve these goals, PSBs are generally obliged to ensure that their services are universally available, and that they have sufficient independence and funding. Forms of intervention that support public service broadcasting include finance, charters, and governance.
Financing of PSB
NHK in Japan, the BBC in the UK, SVT in Sweden and ZDF in Germany are all examples of public service broadcasters funded by a universal license fee on receiver sets. The size of the license fee varies according to local conditions, but in larger markets it can be around $200 per year per television household. In many countries (France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Portugal, for example) public broadcasters receive both direct subsidies and advertising revenue.
Public service broadcasters also receive some forms of grant in direct aid from the government (through taxation, i.e., direct public subsidies); and smaller countries (such as Portugal and Ireland) are forced to rely more on subsidy through taxation. While the US PSB service receives most of its funding from donations, it also receives a significant proportion through government grants.
Indirect public subsidies come mostly in the form of non-market prices for use of the “airwaves” or spectrum frequencies. Most publicly funded broadcasters receive free or cheap spectrum. This means that they do not pay the same charges as a mobile telephony company would pay for the exclusive use of certain frequencies. The value of this indirect subsidy rises rapidly with demand for spectrum, which is in turn driven by innovation, as new services are provided that could use spectrum currently used for television. Some stations receive voluntary public funding through donations. For instance, NHK’s license fee is technically voluntary, i.e., there is no penalty for non-payment, and people have the right to prevent license collectors entering the home, though there are strong social pressures to pay. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the US is funded mainly by completely voluntary donations from viewers and listeners.
Some broadcasting systems impose public service obligations (such as obligations to provide news, and educational, cultural, or national programming) on some commercial broadcasters, as a condition of the license to broadcast. In the United Kingdom, the launch of commercial broadcasters alongside the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s was permitted only on the condition that these companies adhered to a strong public service remit. If broadcasters fail to adhere to public service requirements they may lose their licenses. A crucial obligation placed on public service broadcasters is the obligation to present news and current affairs fairly or “impartially.”
Founding Statements and Charters
Founding statements and charters state the purposes and aims of the corporation. PSBs’ overarching aims and principles tend to be set out either in a license or in a separate founding statement. The BBC, which provides a model for many PSBs around the world, is governed by a Royal Charter, which has been renewed and updated every decade or so since the first charter was signed by King George in 1926. The charter sets out the aims of the corporation. For the first years of the corporation they were set out broadly as provision of broadcasting services to “entertain, inform and educate.” The Royal Charter approved by the UK government in 2006 changes the general objectives of the corporation and sets out a framework for regulating the provision of nonbroadcasting (such as Internet) services. The public purposes of the BBC for 2007 onwards are as follows: (1) sustaining citizenship and civil society; (2) promoting education and learning; (3) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; (4) representing the UK, its nations, regions, and communities; (5) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; (6) in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.
Accountability and Governance
The regulation, accountability, and governance structures of PSBs attempt to insure that the PSB organization is directly accountable to the public it serves, rather than the government, shareholders, or advertisers. The Netherlands’ system of public service broadcasting differs from others, in that public broadcasting channels provide space for programming that is provided by broadcasting associations that represent societal interest groups. Other broadcasters have regional public accountability mechanisms – such as the regional councils in the BBC, or the regulatory authorities in Germany at Länder level that exist to monitor and regulate PSB activity.
Some countries, such as Germany, have a separate system for the financial accountability of public service broadcasters. The Commission on Broadcasting Finance (known as the KEF) has since 1975 had responsibility for auditing the accounts of the public broadcasters and insuring that license fees are wisely spent. The BBC has traditionally been a self-regulating organization, with the BBC governors (renamed the BBC Trust in 2006) acting as a body that holds the Corporation to account for content and also financial matters. The BBC reports annually to Parliament, but Parliament has only weak, symbolic sanctions over the BBC. This arrangement has been criticized as providing only weak accountability and an insufficient guarantee of separation of regulatory and management functions, but it has the advantage of underlining the independence of the BBC.
The system of PSB has been explicitly recognized in international legal instruments such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). ECHR article 10 explicitly permits states to license broadcasting services. However, the freedom of expression provisions in the ECHR were used in the case of Tele 1 v. Austria to establish that national regulators could not restrict terrestrial broadcasters to the national PSBs through refusing to license other broadcasters. There remain some sources of tension between the World Trade Organization attempt to liberalize trade in services (the General Agreement on Trade in Services) and the possible restrictions on free trade between states due to PSBs. Similarly, regional free trade arrangements including the European Union have provided a basis for criticism of PSBs as a form of “state aid” and a barrier to free trade and investment.
Public Service Broadcasting in Historical Perspective
Public service broadcasting has since its inception been based on an attempt to find an alternative to the commercial organization of communications services. The BBC, set up in the 1920s as a consortium of receiver makers, was taken into public ownership in 1926, and a system of noncommercial, publicly funded broadcasting was set up. Within the UK, this was seen by successive UK committees of inquiry as necessary so that the “chaos” of commercial broadcasting in the US was not replicated in the UK. The BBC model has since been widely exported, and hybrid commercial–public service models have evolved in most countries.
For example, in both Japan and Germany in the postwar period a broadcasting system was set up that included a large national public service element. In the case of Germany this broadcaster had many checks and balances to prevent the emergence of a monolithic propaganda instrument. In the former Soviet bloc, there has been a less successful attempt to develop a mixed ecology of commercial and public service media. The PSBs that have been introduced have struggled to achieve audience share and budget sustainability. In developing countries the principal challenges for PSBs have been financial sustainability and political independence, but there is strong support for PSBs where they are necessary for the protection of minority languages.
Most countries’ PSBs operate in a tense relationship with governments. On one hand they must demonstrate that they still merit direct and indirect subsidies, and on the other they can only fulfill their democratic mission by engaging in robust criticism of the government. The use of the BBC model in countries with authoritarian tendencies has been criticized, as it permits too many possibilities for state interference.
Economic Justifications of Public Service Broadcasting
Public service broadcasting has been justified with reference to the following main claims about the economic characteristics of broadcasting. First, broadcasting is a public good. Public goods, like for example air, or the protection by the military, are goods that are nonrival (my consumption does not diminish yours) and nonexcludable (it is difficult in any case to prevent you consuming them). This has led some to claim that the appropriate level of PSB will not be provided by the market, and that public provision may be the most efficient form of provision.
Second, broadcasting is a merit good that provides positive externalities. Education, insurance, and public broadcasting tend to be underprovided by a market because consumers do not choose to consume the amount that serves optimum welfare. In addition, like education, consumption by one individual will have positive benefits in terms of the economic, educational, and democratic health of society as a whole. The BBC argues that broadcasting delivers “public value” that would not be delivered by commercial broadcasting, such as improved democratic, educational, and social cohesion benefits. The contribution of the BBC is measurable through willingness-to-pay surveys that demonstrate that the average sum that citizens would be willing to pay for a BBC subscription (if this were the only way of getting BBC services) is in excess of the sums currently paid in license fees, thus demonstrating that consumers enjoy a surplus of value. Surveys commissioned by the BBC also show that the amount individuals would be prepared to pay in tax to keep the BBC operating “for the good of society” is also in excess of the current level of the license fee, and in excess of the consumer surplus value.
Third, spectrum is a scarce resource and as a result there are a severely limited number of broadcasters. Because choice is limited and broadcasting is a particularly influential and invasive medium, markets will fail and broadcasters must be open and accountable directly to the public and Parliament rather than to shareholders, in order to insure that they provide balanced, plural, and representative forms of content. This rationale is seriously challenged when new platforms such as satellite and broadband show that traditional analog spectrum licenses are no longer a necessary condition of accessing the market.
Challenges to Public Service Broadcasting
Political pressure on broadcaster independence is the major and permanent pressure on public service broadcasters. The years 2004–5 saw major conflicts regarding the relationship between PSBs and governments in Spain, Italy, and the UK. In Spain and the UK the conflicts centered on news coverage of terrorism and security. There are numerous examples in history of disputes between governments and PSBs regarding the appropriate coverage of controversial issues, and governments generally find it hard to resist the temptation to interfere, by attempting to influence high level appointments and editorial policy.
The role of governments in relation to broadcasters is a problematic one, and all public broadcasters face a continuing struggle for independence: from societal interests and from governmental influence and control. All of these regulatory arrangements come under pressure from time to time, particularly in relation to sensitive issues such as national security. Key areas of tension between governments and PSBs concern the content of news programming, and the appointment of key figures to management, journalistic, and governance positions within the PSB. In 2004, the Spanish PSB allegedly came under direct pressure from the prime minister to report terrorist bombings. In Italy, PSB independence and impartiality has traditionally been weak. It is generally accepted that there tends to be a division of the main RAI channels between major political parties, and that this informal system has survived successive governments.
Audience decline and fragmentation is a second challenge to PSB. With increasing channel choice and consumer empowerment comes a decline in audience for PSB channels and genres. In the European Broadcasting Union countries, the PSBs’ audience shares declined from 39 percent in 1995 to 35.5 percent in 2003 (Ward 2006). For publicly funded broadcasters, declining audiences undermine the legitimacy of charging universal license fees. For advertising funded PBSs, audience loss highlights the increasing costs of providing public service programming. PSBs respond with an attempt to provide popular programming, and leave themselves open to the corresponding criticisms of “dumbing down” or lack of distinctiveness. This could be described as a “downward spiral of PSBs.” Fragmentation also leads to pressure for change in the nature of PSB services. For example, some PSBs and their critics argue that the PSB should not have to observe the same high standards – for example of impartiality – if its monopoly position is diminished.
Finally, PSBs are increasingly attempting to launch new services such as Internet, satellite, mobile, and high-definition platforms. The extent to which PSBs are able to enter these new markets depends on the detail of their regulatory arrangements. Some (for example in Germany and Japan) are severely curtailed in their ability to launch new services, while others, for example the BBC, have been able to launch a large array of online and other services. New platforms such as reception on PCs and mobile phones undermine the idea of charging a license fee on TV receivers as a way of paying for PSB services. If significant numbers of users access PSB services though platforms other than TV sets, new payment mechanisms may have to be found.
Views on the current and future development of PSBs range from the pessimistic view that it will be impossible to maintain public provision of distinct PSB material to more optimistic views that see the role of PSBs expanding into new on-demand and interactive services. Some have called for a more “decentralized” or “distributed” model of public service broadcasting. This has variously been described as an “arts council of the airwaves,” distributing funding for public service content by competitive tender, and as a “public service publisher” (Ofcom 2004) that would commission and distribute content of a public service nature for free.
- Holznagel, B. (2000). The mission of public service broadcasters. International Journal of Communications Law and Policy, 13(5), 1–22. (Reprinted in Price & Raboy 2002).
- Ofcom (2004). Ofcom review of public service television broadcasting, vols. 1, 2, 3. London: Office of Communications.
- Price, M., & Raboy, M. (2002). Public service broadcasting: A documentary reader. Brussels: European Institute for the Media.
- Priebs, N. (2004). Learning from abroad: Regulating public service broadcasting in Germany, Japan and the UK. In D. Tambini & J. Cowling (eds.), From public service broadcasting to public service communication. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.
- Tambini, D., & Cowling, J. (eds.) (2004). From public service broadcasting to public service communication. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.
- Ward, D. (2006). Can the market provide? Public service media, market failure and public goods. In C. S. Nissen (ed.), Making a difference: Public service broadcasting in the European media landscape. Eastleigh: John Libbey.