Public broadcasting is notoriously difficult to define, and yet it has been at the center of debates in media policy for decades in those countries where it exists. Proponents of public broadcasting argue that at its heart is the notion of providing the “best” in programming for all, while detractors would argue that it is a form of state control over what we can listen to or watch.
Public broadcasting can also be defined in economic terms (funding from the state or public taxation), cultural terms (maintaining and supporting a minority culture), social terms (broadcasting for the “social good”), audience terms (the listener/ viewer as citizen) and, finally, as “that which is not commercial broadcasting.” In relation to the final statement, Tracey (1998) has suggested a simple epigram for defining public broadcasting as opposed to broadcasting funded by commercial means: the former gets money to make programs while the latter makes programs to get money. However simplistic, this is what public broadcasting is about in essence.
A history of public broadcasting can usefully be divided into three periods: the early history from the 1920s until World War II, the immediate postwar period, and the 1960s onwards.
Scannell (2000) has argued that a historical understanding of public broadcasting needs to take into account two factors: public broadcasting as defined by the state and public broadcasting as interpreted by the broadcaster. In the UK for instance, the government decided upon a broadcasting service that would operate via a license granted by the Post Office. As the service had to share the airwaves with the military and emergency services, a shortage of frequencies meant that the scarce resources had to be utilized in the national interest. A similar rationale was behind the broadcasting services in Belgium and Denmark, for example. Broadcasting was viewed as a public utility, and the mandate to develop it as a national service in the public interest came from the state.
This was in contrast to the model in the United States. Although the broadcaster David Sarnoff had referred to broadcasting as a public service in a speech in 1922, drawing attention to its potential to inform, educate, and entertain the nation, broadcasting development took the commercial as opposed to the state-controlled, public service path. Although it would be unfair to argue that the broadcast media in the US developed in a completely chaotic and unregulated manner, there were fewer restrictions than in the UK (Hilmes & Jacobs 2003).
Once established, the British Broadcasting Company (which became a Corporation in 1927), or BBC, was soon fashioned under the watchful eye of its first managing director, then director-general, Sir John Reith. Reith interpreted public broadcasting by developing a set of principles which were to dominate British broadcasting for decades. This Reithian approach to public broadcasting in the early days of radio broadcasting was based on four tenets. First, the need to protect broadcasting from commercial pressures was safeguarded by creating an assured source of funding (a license fee for all those who owned wireless sets). Second, the service was to be provided for the whole nation regardless of the geographical location of the listener. This policy of a universal service was achieved, third, by the establishment of a national program (broadcast from London) and, fourth, by a regional program from selected cities across the UK (including Cardiff and Birmingham).
Broadcasting had a duty to bring the “best” of British culture to every household in the UK, and this reflected the director-general’s almost missionary zeal for the task in hand. It also allied Reith with the Victorian essayist, Matthew Arnold, who argued that culture was the “best” that had been thought and written in the world. Therefore, the early years of broadcasting in the UK were forged by a combination of a notion of public service and an Arnoldian vision of culture.
Meanwhile, the period of the Weimar Republic (1918–33) in Germany witnessed an emergent public broadcasting system, one which was state-governed and -controlled. The Reichpost, the state regulatory authority covering postal services, telegraphy, and the telephone service, allocated broadcasting licenses and controlled transmission facilities, and the state’s hold over broadcasting was further tightened by the establishment of the Imperial Broadcasting Company in 1925. As Humphreys (1996) has argued, “the state’s grip on the medium had become almost absolute by the time Hitler came to power.” By the early 1930s, the service had incorporated clear elements of public broadcasting and broadcast a range of music, drama, documentary, talk, news, and current affairs programs. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the radio service was instantly commandeered by the Nazis and exploited as a propaganda tool under the watchful eye of the chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. By the mid-1930s the Nazis had turned their attention to the new medium of television, and they soon established the world’s first high-definition television service. The service was distributed to public spaces as opposed to domestic receivers, however, and so the BBC receives credit for the creation of the first public television service for the home.
The Postwar Period
The world’s first regular domestic television service began on November 2, 1936, when the BBC broadcast from Alexandra Palace in north London. However, the outbreak of World War II brought the service to an abrupt halt in September 1939. By the time the service resumed on June 7, 1946, it was clear that television in the UK was to be developed along the same public service principles that governed radio. Although John Reith had left the BBC in 1938, his legacy remained and was to dominate broadcasting policy for at least another 20 years. The high moral enterprise, achieved by a policy of mixed programming on radio and television and a refusal not to pander to audience tastes alone, nevertheless alienated sections of the audience who felt that the tone and content did not reflect their interests or needs. Indeed, one member of the UK government-appointed 1949 committee of enquiry into broadcasting (the Beveridge Committee) referred to the policy as “compulsory uplift.”
Reith’s concept of public broadcasting nevertheless influenced the development of radio and television services in many European countries after the end of World War II and formed a key part of the political economy of the media in these countries. For many, the adoption of this model allowed for a degree of state control and nation-building following a period of upheaval and turmoil. With nations eager to redevelop, rebuild or rediscover a sense of national consciousness in a new Europe, a model of broadcasting which catered for a national service in the national interest was seen as the way forward. Programming in which nations could reflect their own identity within and without the outside world, free from commercial pressures, would flourish under the public broadcasting model.
As television services emerged in postwar Europe, some variation in the “degree” of public service appeared. In France, for example, the state had a closer hold on broadcasters than in Spain, where the television service (which began in 1956) was funded by advertising but controlled by the state. The main aim of the Allies’ postwar broadcasting policy in Germany was to ensure that party political influence on broadcasting as a social good remained minimal. To this end, the BBC’s Hugh Carleton Greene (later to become the corporation’s director-general in 1960) was deployed to run the BBC-inspired Nordwestdeutscher Rundfunk in the British zone of occupied Germany. As a result, the overwhelming influence on German broadcasting up until the 1980s was a public broadcasting ethos. Further afield, Japan’s NHK television service, introduced in 1953, drew closely on the BBC’s public service model and was funded by a license fee. The Japanese public broadcasting model, whilst carrying a comprehensive diet of news and current affairs, placed its prime emphasis on entertainment.
Chinese broadcasting history is one of unprecedented growth and expansion after a small, relatively inauspicious start. The Communist Party which came to power in 1949 established broadcasting as a state propaganda tool. Television was introduced in 1958 in Beijing alone and spread across the country at a very slow pace. The rapid expansion took place after 1976, and by today Chinese viewers have access to a wide range of channels, some of them still closely monitored by the state. These examples highlight how political and cultural contexts impact upon the development of public broadcasting in different countries.
Despite the dominance of the public broadcasting model in Europe, the postwar years saw a gradual shift towards commercialism. In the UK, the debate over a rival television service to compete with the BBC began in the years immediately after the war. The debate was fuelled by the publication of the Beveridge Report on broadcasting which, although supporting the maintenance of the BBC’s monopoly over broadcasting, accused the corporation of a London-centric bias at the expense of the nations and regions of the UK. A minority report by one of the committee’s members, the Conservative MP Selwyn Lloyd, went so far as to advocate the establishment of a commercially funded television service. It was this impetus, together with the activity of backbench Conservative MPs and external pressure groups, that led to the passing of the 1954 Television Act, which introduced a television service funded by advertising revenue to the UK for the first time. The 1960s and 1970s saw the continued abandonment of the Reithian model of public broadcasting across Europe. In the US, however, there was a concerted attempt to “ringfence” public broadcasting by the establishment of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1969. This network of nonprofitmaking stations was launched in October 1970 and drew (and continues to draw) its programming from a variety of sources offering programming in news and current affairs, children’s programming, entertainment, science, and the arts. After initial success, however, the service soon declined in the face of stiff commercial competition. The 1960s saw an increasingly liberal approach to broadcasting (particularly in terms of content) and in the UK the matter came to a head in 1977 with the publication of the Annan Report on broadcasting. For the first time, the appropriateness of a paternalistic mode of public broadcasting in a pluralistic society was questioned, and the concerns voiced in the report reflected the changing nature of British society during the 1960s and 1970s.
A further shift took place during the 1980s when citizens were being increasingly defined as consumers. The neo-liberalist stance of the Peacock Report in the United Kingdom, published in 1986, referred to the now-famous notion of “consumer sovereignty,” a sign for many that the death knell for public broadcasting had been rung. Across Europe, technological advances and changes in regulatory legislation made it easier to establish networks. Throughout the 1990s, increasing de-regularization, globalization, and the international marketplace placed public broadcasting systems under threat. The notion of the “national” territory or boundary with which much of the public broadcasting ideal was bound up was eroding. At a global level, the market was considered to be the most appropriate mechanism for satisfying audience demand for broadcasting services, and the basic tenets of public broadcasting were gradually eroded.
The future of public broadcasting is uncertain. In the UK, for example, the communications regulatory body, Ofcom (Office of Communications), undertook a wholesale review of public service broadcasting during 2004–2005. The aim of the review was “to set out a new framework for public service broadcasting . . . designed for the future and sufficiently adaptable to respond to and reflect changing technologies, markets, and the needs of citizens and consumers” (Ofcom 2005). An indication of how the notion of public broadcasting has changed since the mid-1920s can be seen clearly in the inclusion of two terms that would be anathema to John Reith – “markets” and “consumers.” The impulse to inform, educate, and entertain remains, but it also remains to be seen whether or not the market can deliver or whether there will still be a role for the public broadcasting ideal.
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