Posted by Tanja Estella Bosch | 1 Dec, 2008
From public service broadcasting to public service media. Gregory Ferrell Lowe & Jo Bardoel (eds). 2007. Nordicom: Sweden.
This title brings together papers and discussions from the RIPE@2006 conference, concerned primarily with the transition from public service broadcasting to public service media within the European Union. The theme of the conference was Public Service Broadcasting in the Multimedia Environment: Programmes and Platforms. The key questions addressed by both the conference and the chapters in this book include: What is the mission of public service media in a multimedia environment, within the content of digitization, globalization and convergence? How can the public service enterprise be renewed while maintaining its underlying ethos of communication in the public interest? And, how might policy makers explore the possibilities inherent in developing a uniquely European dual media system?
The book is divided into two sections: The first deals with the challenges involved in policy development; and the second addresses content-related aspects with the focus on strategic and tactical implications. The core challenge outlined is the transition to public service media. The latter is defined as a move away from the traditional transmission model toward demand-oriented approaches to service and content provision. Audiences are seen as partners (versus targets), and the authors argue that existing policy perspectives lack a clear understanding of how the social realm shapes technology and media “because the view is constrained by economic and technological determinism” (p.12).
The distinction between public service media or PSM versus public service broadcasting is not immediately clear; but the authors’ definition of the term emerges as being centred primarily around the role of the audience. The growth of new media means greater interactivity by users, who can become “co-creators of their local and personal mediascapes” (p.215). Instead of a ‘ratings-driven’ notion of the audiences, the authors argue for an audience massage model (borrowing from McLuhan) which critiques the discourse about the audience in three ways: rhetorical, focusing on the content of audience research; framing, focusing on critiquing the dominant quantitative methods of audience research; and structural, paying attention to the political and economic structures which constrain the language about audiences. One of the limitations to be overcome in the transition to public service media would thus be to explore alternate views of the audience, including perspectives informed by qualitative research methods.
There is usually no standard definition of public broadcasting, except that programming is concerned with identity and community, and in some way informs and educates audiences. These ideas are often hard to reconcile with commercial imperatives, because PSM is financed by the public. The authors stress that public service media “must be a service for the public – but also for the government and others powers acting in the public sphere” (p. 255).
In terms of programming, the contributors argue for more hybrid programming (e.g. infotainment), while reaching and appealing to increasingly complex publics. Trends in commercial broadcasting underscore the need for PSM. In particularly, they do not meet the cultural and democratic requirements of public service broadcasting, nor do they provide a forum for public discourse in the democratic process. In addition, PSM should counteract the impact of the fragmentation and lack of social cohesion, which may accompany the rise of new technology. Furthermore, the book argues that PSM organizations must develop into cultural industries, adjust educational content to the requirements of the 21st century, and promote intercultural dialogue at home and abroad.
A fair amount of discussion focuses on potential funding sources for PSM, particularly of its new digital media services. While trends across the region are uneven, funding for digital services is generally modest compared to budgets for TV and radio. There is ongoing debate about whether to charge users additional fees for extra services, introducing advertising or revenue sharing deals with telecom providers or network operators. The challenge for PSM in mature democracies has always been how to maintain political and operational independence from the state, while being tied to it via dependence on funding. Situated between the state and the market, the authors argue that “it is the market which has increasingly been exerting a greater influence on how the scope and role of public broadcasters are defined” (p.87). As the media landscape in Europe becomes more commercial, PSM should balance a potential move to commercial activities with its need for legitimacy.
The book also covers the role of current affairs and reality based programming, the role of entertainment to reach popular audiences, PSM models of education, youth consumption of public service news, and satire as cross-media entertainment for public service media. Case studies from Britain, Denmark and the Netherlands are presented to illustrate the discussions.
While this text acknowledges the impact of new media in the delivery and development of the public service model, there is little discussion of its practical implications. Some issues might include uneven access to new media, as well as potential reach of new audiences such as youth.
The writing style is often unnecessarily verbose, making it hard to recommend this text for media students. However, despite the focus on the North, the nuanced and theoretically solid debates about the future of public service broadcasting make this a useful read for global media scholars and public service practitioners, insofar as some lessons might be transferable. Many European countries failed to meet the commitments that their governments undertook at the 4th European Ministerial Conference on Mass Media Policy in Prague in 1994 to maintain a strong public broadcasting system. This makes this text particularly important and timely contribution to the debates about the future of public service broadcasting, both in Europe and elsewhere. As one contributor writes, “There is no guarantee that PSM will survive in the 21st century. If they are successful in winning strong popular support and participation, and this can only be done by remaining relevant to the audience and partners among the general public, policy will take its cue from that. There is a chance of a new beginning. It must be seized” (p. 44).