Saturday, October 07, 2006

Are public service broadcasters important? Will they be so in the future?

Five years ago, a number of contributors to OpenDemocracy - largely drawn from the UK - discussed the merits of public service broadcasting (PSB), compared explicitly against the market and implicitly against some ideal broadcasting service which delivers just the right amount of merit goods. The key questions were normative - ought PSB exist, and ought it to be funded in the way it currently is funded - but relied on empirical judgements about the extent to which PSBs fulfilled the normative goals set out for them: variously, providing diverse and meritorious programming which is capable of contributing to pluralistic democratic debate within the broader public sphere.

The most pungent contribution came from David Elstein, who argued that the market was capable of fulfilling these normative functions. The two strands of his argument were (1) that during the period of moderate competition in the UK media market in the second half of the twentieth century, private suppliers - ITV - made programming of high quality, including high quality news and current affairs, and (2) that, in any event, the end of spectrum scarcity means that diversity and pluralism will be secured even better in the future by new private entrants. Consequently, the normative justification for public service broadcasting - or at least, publicly funded broadcasting - is no longer operative, and public funding for the BBC should dry up.

I do not share Elstein's optimism about the capacity of private suppliers to supply large amounts of merit programming; but I think that even if his argument were correct, the policy prescriptions he seeks would not be forthcoming. Politicians - perhaps because they are avid consumers of one of the most obvious types of merit programming, news and current affairs - have not been willing to tolerate gradual elimination of PSBs. Even in those countries where the public service broadcasters have most manifestly failed their remit, in Italy and Spain, governments have been willing to refinance these broadcasters, at some considerable cost to their Treasuries, at times of difficulty (1993 and 2006 respectively).

It might be thought instead that funding for PSB is contingent on continued high audience share and high audience reach, with PSBs who fall below a certain percentage share condemned to ghettoisation and reduced funding streams. If this is the case, the technological developments noted by Elstein may represent a problem for PSBs. If each additional entrant into the television market reduces PSB share and/or reach by a certain amount (even if the marginal amount is constantly decreasing), will the PSB still retain sufficient share or reach to command a claim to public finances? Or, if new means of communication reduce the relevance of television as part of overall media consumption, will PSBs claim a large enough share of this broader media market to lobby sucessfully for continued public funding?

If, as I believe, the continued rude health of PSB depends more on these more prosaic and measurable features of the media market than on notions of quality and the provision of merit goods, what are the current facts regarding PSB audience share?

First, when people want news and information, they turn to television. From the Eurobarometer surveys, we know that 70% of people in the EU15 watch television news every day. That's more than the 41% of people who read a newspaper every day. When people actively look for information on politics in the EU, for example, television is cited as the most commonly used source by 65% - 73% of respondents; newspapers and radio still edge out the internet, and the gap remains several percentage points.

We also know that, when they turn to television, people still turn to public service broadcasters. The European Audiovisual Observatory publishes data on the audience share of television channels across Europe. Of the 19 PSBs in Old Europe (broadcasters in the EU15, plus Norway and Switzerland, plus linguistic PSBs in Belgium and Switzerland), nine have increased audience share over the period 1995 - 2004; ten have decreased audience share. This is no artefact of the competitiveness of the media market in these countries - increased audience share was found in Germany, Finland, the Netherlands, and Norway, which all have high take-up rates of digital terrestrial and satellite television.

Moreover, PSBs are not losing audience share dramatically. Only four PSBs - Radio e televisao de Portugal (RTP), RTÉ, Sveriges Television and Osterreichische Rundfunk - have lost more than one percentage point audience share a year, and only RTP has slipped below the symbolically important 25% figure.

Finally, some PSBs have built up major web portals. The BBC News website is the eighth most visited in the world, and the only one in the top ten to provide content (the other is Microsoft). Italian PSB Rai has been less successful: it lags behind other domestic telecoms groups (Telecom Italia; Wind; Kataweb; RCS) but stills beats its commercial competitor Mediaset. Consequently, should internet media consumption be rivalrous with traditional television and or radio consumption - and evidence on news consumption in the United States suggests that it is not - then PSBs can be well placed to meet the threat.

In conclusion - for those considering it, it's still worth writing a thesis on public service broadcasting, and still worth reading one. PSBs retain significant audience share and are not losing it fast enough for obituaries to be taken out of deep freeze.

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