Reinventing public service communication

Petros Iosifidis outlines the looming challenges to national public service broadcasters in Europe
Petros Iosifidis
4 May 2010

This edited collection addresses one of the most challenging debates in contemporary media studies: the transition of the traditional public service broadcasters into public service media - that is, widening their remit to be available in more delivery platforms for producing and distributing public service content. Cross-platform strategies help public service media retain audience share, reach new audiences and develop on-demand services, while enabling them to create a stronger partnership with civil society and serve an extended form of citizenship.

The principal challenges facing public service broadcasters include the pressures generated by rapid technological change; the dilemma between the obligation to safeguard citizenship ambitions and support market principles; the legitimacy and performance of public service broadcasters in a multimedia ecology characterised by convergence and fragmentation; and their transition to public service media. Technological change and growing competition in broadcasting has opened up media markets and enhanced media choice, challenging thus the performance of publicly funded PSBs.

Furthermore, the shape of society and the mass media have become more internationally-oriented and this shift has brought into question the very legitimacy of national communities, identities and ideologies. This has impacted greatly on Europe, which is dynamically evolving and where historically language, ideology, politics, economics and religions complicate the crafting of a unified sense of Europe. The continent’s emerging cultural mix, facilitated by emigration and the accession of twelve new nations since 2004 with nearly 120 million people, have complicated the formation of a common cultural conversation and identity and exacerbated the difficulty of framing a constitution.

In the light of the above changes public service broadcasters are struggling to come to terms with Europeanisation and globalisation of media ownership, production, programming and distribution, the ‘marketisation’ of media output, technological convergence and audience fragmentation, as well as the shift from analogue to digital transmission. While the prevailing nation-state frameworks for cultural and political identity are gradually fading, some public service broadcasters are finding it hard to serve and promote national culture and identity, and meet the challenges of the growing uncertainties in light of a cosmopolitan Europe. But these are considered among the central institutions that can help European citizens make sense of such developments by bearing traces of collective identities and therefore creating an expanded, pan-European cultural space. Can public service broadcasters be 'multi-cultural’, mobilise a new sense of Europeaness, while at the same time transform into public service media and deliver public service content that would meet audience needs in a digital age?

The scholars in this volume discuss the contemporary relevance of public service media as a cultural and political enterprise and as a forum in which a variety of cultural demands are best met. The title Reinventing Public Service Communication: European Broadcasters and Beyond may seem rather vague and ambitious, but it reflects how social change and new technologies require these public institutions to evolve from basic broadcasting services into an engine that provides information and useful content to all citizens using various platforms. What distinguishes this edited collection is that it blends theoretical critical analysis with empirical national case studies. A diverse group of scholars has been brought together to provide a range of well-argued, independent yet critical perspectives on the issue of public service media. The main questions posed in this edited book are:

  • What strategies would public service enterprise need to renew and reshape while maintaining public service principles?
  • How can public service broadcasters take account of the different media platforms for public service media (online, on-demand, mobile) and the changing relationship with the audience (as content generators and a community of users)?
  • Are European media and cultural policies developing satisfactorily within the context of enlargement and alleged European integration?
  • To what extent and why is there a European public sphere and identity and how is this documented by public media?
  • How non-EU public service media systems perform and how these broadcast economies link with the EU area?

The authors address these questions not merely through the lens of European integration, cultural policy and the public sphere (or the absence of it), but also through wider concerns relating to the public service media position within highly competitive national marketplaces, in particular by touching on issues of public service media strategy, branding, content, and crucially public service media’s relationship with its audiences, who may expect more interaction and also generate content themselves.

The practical lessons broadcasters in Europe need to take away from this collection are the following:

  • Concerning the type of content – public service broadcasters should aim for comprehensiveness, rather than merely complement the market; they should remain a major engine of offering original, home grown high quality output, rather than recycled or bought-in mainstream programmes. The strategy of the so-called ‘programming convergence’, adapted by most southern and eastern/central European broadcasters in the early days of TV market liberalisation led to marginalisation and alienated them from their viewers.
  • Concerning the resources public service broadcasters should use to fulfill their mandate - the case studies reveal that the licence fee remains the most reliable and stable source of funding that is relatively free from political constraints.
  • Independence from the state is key to public service broadcasters’ legitimacy and long-term survival.
  • Internal restructuring to make public institutions more cost efficient and effective but without sacrificing their public service values would ensure that public service broadcasters remain independent and are held accountable for the services they provide.
  • Public service broadcasters should ensure that a wide, diverse range of output is provided free at the point of reception to all households. New technology can ensure that public service content is available on all platforms. Some broadcasters, especially from northern Europe have taken advantage of the launch of digital terrestrial television, set up web sites and offered on-demand services, with the BBC in the forefront, but public service broadcasters in the Mediterranean and eastern/central Europe do not enjoy the same status or legitimacy in their respective media landscape that the BBC has in Britain, and this impacts on their expansion to new services.
  • Turning into public service media would enable public service broadcasters to reflect the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic composition of contemporary European societies.

One thing is certain: the technological, financial, organisational and programming challenges will intensify in the coming years. Yet the public service broadcasters’ relationship with the audience remains strong and ensures their viability and relevance in the digital age. Media policy-makers should opt for a public service media system which would provide a wide range of high quality, universally accessible content, free at the point of consumption. In the midst of a global economic crisis it is becoming increasingly apparent that the public sector, rather than the free market, is the answer to the continuing supply of high quality public service output. Policy-makers, politicians, academics and the media industry have much to learn from the practical experience of studying the diverse national public service media landscapes included in this book.


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