Public service broadcasting (PSB), according to McQuail (2005, 179), refers to “a system that is set up by law and generally financed by public funds (often a compulsory license fee paid by households) and given a large degree of editorial and operating independence.” Public service broadcasting is supposed to function independently of both the market and the state, and therefore differs from the alternative systems of commercial broadcasting on the one hand and authoritarian or state-operated broadcasting on the other.
Until the 1980s public service broadcasting was dominant, or even held a monopoly, in most countries of the western world. During that decade public broadcasters lost their dominant position because of liberalizing policies following the advent of new distribution technologies and the eroding legitimacy of the argument of spectrum scarcity as well as growing political and public criticism of the privileged position of PSBs. In the 1990s commercial stations became the dominant actors in most broadcasting markets, and public service broadcasters had to adapt to a new, “dual” broadcasting context in which they are the exception rather than the rule. At the beginning of the third millennium new multimedia platforms represent yet another challenge for public broadcasters.
Origins And Philosophical Traces
There is no clear definition or coherent theory of public broadcasting. When radio was invented at the beginning of the twentieth century and television by the middle of the same century, national governments had to regulate access to the media – unlike the situation with the press – because of the scarcity of frequencies and a widespread concern about the impact of these new, electronic media on people and society. In this context public, noncommercial corporations were set up that presented a comprehensive program, consisting of information, education, culture, and entertainment that would raise the level of political awareness and cultural taste of citizens, not consumers. The first director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), John Reith, had already put these ideals on paper in the 1920s, and his BBC became a trusted source amidst the propaganda of authoritarian regimes in those days and indeed a model for the world.
The philosophical traces of the concept of PSB lie in humanistic Enlightenment ideals and in normative notions on the social responsibility and public interest of media in modern societies. These notions stem from policy advisory commissions like the Hutchins commission in the US (1947), the British Royal Commission on the Press (1949 and 1977) and successive committees on broadcasting in the UK (Scannell 1980). As such this is a negotiated concept that results from a process of political struggle, social debate, and academic reflection and differs from country to country and from period to period, reflecting national media policies and research traditions.
In a situation of channel scarcity for broadcasting, where government interference was considered inevitable, explicit legitimization for a public broadcasting policy was not really necessary. But from the 1970s, interfering in public broadcasting and giving the organizations a financial prerogative and a specific role “in the public interest” began to require legitimizing. The public monopoly, originally of a more ritualistic nature, was not seriously contested but an open government had to legitimize its prescriptive regulations. With the introduction of commercial television and, in the European context, the changed policy environment following the EC directive “Television without Frontiers,” interference and preferential treatment required a more deliberate strategic policy and legitimacy.
Goals And Distribution
In spite of all the differences mentioned, the goals of public broadcasting across cultures show a striking resemblance (see Broadcasting Research Unit 1985; Council of Europe 1994; McQuail 2005): (1) universality of geographic coverage and audience reach, and a common reference point and forum for all members of the public; (2) pluralistic, innovative, and varied programming, independent of both government and market forces; (3) concern for national culture, language, and identity as well as a reflection of ideas and beliefs in a multiethnic and multicultural society; (4) accountability toward society and the audience.
At present public broadcasting systems exist all over the world, but are most frequently found in European countries and in countries that have historical or colonial ties with these European countries. The example and model of PSB worldwide is the BBC, but within Europe the BBC’s position is in many respects the exception rather than the rule. In fact, the position and organization of PSBs, as national institutions, reflects the history of the respective nation-states.
The American public broadcasting system, PBS, has quite a different tradition and position (Avery 1993). The United States Radio Act of 1927 enabled the commercial, advertiser-funded broadcasting system for which the US is known. In 1945 the Federal Communications Commission created licenses for noncommercial educational radio stations with a public service ideal. Educational television officially began by 1952, but it was only with the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, following the report of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, that more (although limited) funding for both educational radio and television became available. Since then public radio and television gained a fixed but, compared to public broadcasters in Europe and elsewhere in the world, rather marginal position in the media landscape.
Public Broadcasting In Question
The reflection on the concept of public broadcasting has considerably increased since its existence is not self-evident any more, due to the advent of new media technologies and a liberalization of media policies all over the world. The new context of PSB has raised continual criticism on almost every aspect of its operations: its mission and its realization, its programming, organization, control, its funding and expenditure.
The question of the mission of public service broadcasters is greater than ever. It shows that an explicit legitimization in terms of PSB’s role in society has become imperative, and serves as a battleground for different interests and insights. Traditionally, the political function of PSB in relation to democracy, pluralism, and public debate was emphasized, but more recently socio-cultural goals, such as serving social integration and cohesion, have become more prominent (Bardoel & Brants 2003). At a more practical, nonrhetorical level the independence of public broadcasting, from both the state and the market, is constantly at stake. For public broadcasters the relation to politics is most crucial, and Hallin & Mancini’s seminal book Comparing media systems (2004) demonstrates that the relation between politics and the media and media freedom across western countries varies greatly according to their political history and culture and the room it leaves for a vivid public sphere, including public broadcasting. In this respect, the countries of North America and western Europe are ahead of the European countries of the south and the east that have a relatively young democratic tradition.
Public broadcasters also have to redefine their relation to the public. Although the public should be the primary frame of reference, many PSBs have kept the people and civil society at a distance, while politics and the government proved to be the preferred partner. This is also a result of a tradition of paternalism, which is more or less inherent in the pedagogical imperative practised by public broadcasters in the past. Although public broadcasters have a problem of redefining their mission in the context of the new “dual” broadcasting market and a changing, multicultural society, many believe that basic functions such as a low-cost and universally available reliable provision of information, education, and culture and the catering for minority tastes and interests cannot or will not be sufficiently served by the commercial market (“market failure”).
Closely related to the mission is the program assignment of public broadcasting. The recent debate on this issue can be summarized by the catchwords “comprehensive or complementary”: should PSB still present a full-scale program offering or should it just supplement programs that its commercial counterpart does not offer? Despite accusations of copycat strategies and a convergence between public and commercial broadcasters, research shows that most public broadcasters have chosen, principally or pragmatically, the middle way of compensation. Although there is much debate on the mission of public service broadcasting, almost no country has made the choice to really narrow the program task of PSB. In response to this critical debate, most public broadcasters look for arguments in favor of the full-scale model and try to stress their distinctiveness more than ever. The alternative option of de-institutionalizing PSB by introducing public program funds comparable with policies vis-à-vis culture and the arts (“distributed public service”) has been proposed in countries that reconsidered their public broadcasting system, but no country has dared to take that far-reaching step, with the notable exception of New Zealand, where a drastic reorganization of PSB took place in 1988. Open competition via an “arts council of the air” model was meant to lead to greater value for money and add to the quality of PSB programming, but in practice it did not work out that way.
Looking further into the organizational aspects, the rapid rise of commercial television from the 1980s, leading to the majority of stations being private by the middle of the 1990s, has also changed the structure and culture of public broadcasting institutions considerably. Already in the 1980s quasi-commercial elements were introduced within public service broadcasting, such as the popularization of programming in peak time in order to maximize audiences and advertising revenues, the increasing cost-consciousness and efficiency in its activities and the adaptation of management practices from the commercial sector. Although there is still considerable support for the maintenance of strong PSB institutions in most countries, there is also a growing need for continual monitoring of its overall efficiency and effectiveness.
The main source of finance for most PSBs remains the license fee, but most countries have mixed systems. There are countries in which at least three-quarters of the budget of public television comes from license fees or public subsidies, as opposed to countries where advertising is the major part of a channel’s income. In addition, the overall financial position of public television channels differs considerably from country to country. The BBC budget is about seven times higher than the total budget of the 22 public broadcasting organizations that make up the public broadcasting service in the Netherlands. The comparative “poverty” or “wealth” of PSBs is of course closely related to the size of the population (or market) to be served. Although there is strong criticism of advertising as a partial but important source of income for public broadcasters, mixed funding has been defended as a proper tool to minimize unilateral dependence on politics and to strengthen the programming freedom of broadcasters. On the other hand, income from advertisements may motivate even PBSs to conform to tuning-in quota.
Public Service Broadcasting In A New Media Context
In 10 years’ time TV households will devote much less of their viewing time to linear, generalist channels. Audiences will use more distribution platforms and channels alongside the currently available open broadcast channels. In order to maintain a reasonable level of audience reach public broadcasters may decide to extend their portfolio of platforms and channels. The first step will involve thematic channels, which will, to the extent that they prove successful, change the function of the present open channels to showrooms for program offerings on thematic channels and “on demand” platforms. Gradually these media and platforms will be linked as part of deliberate cross-media strategies that try to keep the viewer and the listener in their network for as long as possible. In general, brand building across media and platforms will become more important for public broadcasters. In the new media context the raison d’être of PSBs, more than ever, will lie in offering quality programming and setting the standard as well as serving as a trusted brand or as an “anchor” for citizens in the new flood of information.
- Avery, R. K. (ed.) (1993). Public service broadcasting in a multichannel environment: The history and survival of an ideal. White Plains, NY: Longman.
- Bardoel, J., & Brants, K. (2003). From ritual to reality: Public broadcasters and social responsibility in the Netherlands. In G. F. Lowe and T. Hujanen (eds.), Broadcasting and convergence: New articulations of the public service remit. Gothenburg: Nordicom, pp. 167–187.
- Broadcasting Research Unit (1985). The public service idea in British broadcasting. London: BRU.
- Council of Europe (1994). The media in a democratic society. Political Declaration, Resolutions and Statement, 4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy, Prague, December 7–8, MCM(94)20. At www.coe.int/T/E/Com/Files/Events/2002-09-Media/ConfMedia1994.asp, accessed September 21, 2007.
- Hallin, D. C., & Mancini, P. (2004). Comparing media systems: Three models of media and politics. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- McQuail, D. (2005). McQuail’s mass communication theory. London: Sage.
- Scannell, P. (1980). Public service: The history of a concept. In A. Goodwin & G. Whannel (eds.), Understanding television. London: Routledge, pp. 11–29.