Public service media in the digital age: A Connection Factory debate

Videos from the recent conference, 'Public service broadcasting in the digital age' at Westminster University.
Alice Bell David Gauntlett
31 March 2010
Foreword by David Gauntlett

During the twentieth century, the concept of ‘public service broadcasting’ was reasonably straightforward: a small number of major, recognised, regulated sources were tasked with a mission to educate, inform and entertain the public in certain ways in order to retain their licences. Today, of course, that picture has changed considerably. The Web offers a wide range of providers the opportunity to provide ‘public service’ interactive media offerings, which may be commercial or non-commercial, and may be produced by charities, activists, academics, government, other organisations, and new or established companies.Organisations such as the BBC have used digital media to expand the concept of public service material, whilst the internet has enabled organisations such as the British Library to move from being primarily a physical building to more of an online information platform. Meanwhile there are entrepreneurial startups such as the School of Everything which create learning possibilities which did not previously exist (or were much more difficult to organise).At this event we explored what ‘public service media’ means today, who might be expected to provide it, and how they can be supported.We also formally launched the ConnectionFactory network, supported by the EPSRC, the AHRC, and the BBC, which should help to make fruitful connections in this area by bringing together media professionals and academics interested in using digital media for the public good.Questions which are considered in these video talks and discussions include:

  • How does the traditional ‘public service’ dimension of popular media translate into the online, interactive, user-engaged media of today?
  • How should professionals and organisations respond to the creative challenge posed by activists and amateurs? Should they work together more?
  • How can these services be funded and sustainable?
  • What can we do better in the future?

Videos and commentary from Alice BellDavid Gauntlett's introduction

David Gauntlett kicked off by drawing our attention to the difference between the more traditional "public service broadcasting" and the "public service media" of their title, suggesting the shift from one to the other reflected a shift to a broader media landscape, and one that was possibly more interactive. A notion of "public service", perhaps denotes a rather Reithian "top-down" style of media. David suggested that in the digital age, perhaps public service media institutions should be providing platforms rather than content. There are corners of Youtube which are, arguably, more "public service" than the bulk of BBC or Channel Four output. Yet, YouTube runs at a humongous loss. Maybe the solution then would be a BBC-Tube, or a British-Library-Tube? I'm inclined to think the very idea of a BBC-Tube boarders on tautology, but the explicit contradiction of such an idea is also what makes it a powerful point.

Richard Deverell, BBC North

Appropriately enough, next up was Richard Deverell from the BBC. He underlined the shift in language, noting that the new "Media City" (Salford) reflects a more open and interactive media landscape than "Broadcasting House" or "Television Centre". He provided a nice anecdote about writing a report in 1995 for John Birt on "the information superhighway". Birt promptly flew to the US, spent three days chatting in Bill Gates' garden and came back a zealot for "online". He also provided a neat analogy for the difference between on-demand and "linear" broadcasting: it's like a supermarket saying you can only buy chocolate digestives at 7pm on a Thursday. He finished with a seven point manifesto for media in the digital age. Some highlights of which were: embrace the technology and technologists because software engineers are the new creatives; be as audience focused as possible (including loads of audience research); and do less, but do it better (including exploiting the archive).

Someone asked if Deverell felt there was a tension between "quality" and an uptake of user-generated content; that he worried about losing the BBC's editorial control? The answer was simple: yes, a huge tension. This is why he felt there will never be a BBC-Tube, but it's a tension we have to deal with. Another interesting question focused on news: one of the features of the web is that it is a post-modern medium, that it challenges the idea of a single truth narrative, how can you therefore say online news is more impartial? Deverell's answer was that online news could bring more diverse sources (so, he would agree it fractures truth narrative, but maybe provides closer to truth? Gave me flashbacks to reading Karl Popper and/ or Jay David Bolter)

William Dutton, Oxford Internet Institute

Next was a presentation from William H Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute. This largely presented data on UK internet use trends. You can read more on their website, but it's worth repeating the odd top-line result here. It's thought-provoking if nothing else. (apologies if I've got any of the stats wrong in attempting to transcribe my shockingly bad handwriting).

  • 70% of British population is online.
  • The internet profile of a rich, old person is strikingly similar to that of a young, poor person.
  • 38% of us have met someone online (I was a bit surprised this was so low).
  • The internet is fast becoming the first place we go to for information. In 2005, 38% of people would go to the internet first for medical/ health information. In 2007, this was 68%.
  • We trust the internet. We trust it as much as broadcast media, and less than newspapers.
  • Our trust in the internet is increasing whilst our trust in the government is decreasing. At the same time we are more inclined to want the government to regulate the internet (people are inconsistent shocker).
  • People who use the internet are more sociable than people who do not.
  • We think we are getting better at searches, but actually the search engines are getting cleverer (which includes cleverer at sending us to brands, though this might be seen as a good thing if the brand is the BMJ or NHS).
  • When we find information online, we go via search engines or social media.

On that final point, Dutton also noted that we don't go to a "place" anymore, as much as we seek out specific content. We are less likely to hang out at the Guardian, FT, BBC, or Times. Rather, we seek out a story and end up at one of them. This reflects the oft-repeated line that homepages are pretty redundant these days (really, when was the last time you went to the BBC homepage?) and a point made by Deverell; that it is the low-cost of searches which have allowed us all to become media producers in the digital age. This was challenged by the floor though, as it was pointed out that we often google specific places, if only because it's as quick/ quicker than sorting through personal bookmarks. (I can't be the only one who googles themself every time they are asked for their work phone number?). I also asked about how he thought about the "digital divide", and if he had any demographics on who comments and contributes online. If all the "public media" benefits of the digital age are to be found in user-generated content, surely this is, at least, a secondary form of a digital divide? Dutton pointed me to their research papers online for more information, but couldn't provide much detail there and then.

Jude England, British Library

Finally, there was a short presentation from Jude England, Head of Social Science at the British Library. She talked quite broadly about the ways in which the British Library was trying to deal with digital. She painted a picture of the library as an institution still quite stuck to an idea of collecting for future generations (rather than necessarily being used, today). Although they are opening up the collections a lot more now, on the whole, you do still need to visit the building. She made some fascinating points about the issues involved in collecting digital culture. For example, the library asks permission to archive blogs, and so generally will only get 25% of the ones they want (you have to sign a form saying you own the copyright for all the content, you can see bloggers jumping at that). She emphasised how important the collecting of digital culture is: what's going to happen to all those pictures of snow people send the BBC?

In questions, I picked up on a point England had made about digital collections perhaps helping improve the "public understanding of research". I suggested that we were perhaps better served buy concepts such as "public engagement" or "public participation" rather than "public understanding" (I know, cliches and jargon at that, but it's my job to say stuff like that). It's all very well using the internet to explain to the public what researchers do and/ or let a larger number of people have access to primary and secondary sources. However, I think one of the great things about people like the BL archiving blogs is that it shows the importance of blogs alongside more traditional forms of publishing. For example, Literary researchers should be paying attention to the sorts of literary criticism done by lit-bloggers and fan-fiction communities. Academics should let themselves be challenged and informed by publics as much as they should do challenging and informing work themselves. In response England made the good (but ever-so-easy) point that the public need to turn up to such engagement work. Still, I'm not sure ideas of "public understanding" should be structuring our thoughts about "public service media", in an digital age, or at any other time.

12:15. Jude England: How Karl Marx managed to get a readers' pass to the British Library, I don't know (Ha! True! It is a good point).

12:45. Do British Library archives reflect the original long tail? (or at least long tail analysis is v. applicable?)

12:55. William Dutton: People used to send hate email on campus in the late 1970s. It's nothing new.

I then missed a chunk of the event after lunch - bunked off for a meeting about curriculum reform. I did catch a bit of the end of this and the panel discussion, and it sounded like it included some really amazing projects. Much more "grass-rooty", at least in contrast to the big brands of the BBC or BL featured in the morning. Look them up: the projects were Dogs Trust, the School of Everything, and the Social Innovation Camp.

Douglas Hine, School of Everything

Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein, Dogs Trust


Dan McQuillan, Enterprise UK

15:15. Dan McQuillan: words like "engagement" and "participation" tend to be used as platitudes (I have a lot of sympathy with this...)

15:20. Fascinating example of some women who set up their own peer-to-peer learning project instead of doing MA's in media/ arts (think they are called MzTek)

Charles Brown, University of Westminster

After coffee, there was a "reflections" panel. First up was Charles Brown, a lecturer in Media Management at Westminster. He started on a deliberately optimistic note: that we are living in the most exciting phase of public service media, that change is good and we should not fear digital technologies. His presentation was mainly about "OTT technologies". I'm not entirely sure what they are, but sound cool. They are OTT because they work "over the top" of content dissemination platforms, his example was largely Project Canvas (a sort of extension of iplayer, outside of just the BBC, see this blogpost from the BBC for some notes). His discussion seemed to center around how well organisations such as Sky, Virgin, Google or the major museums might be able to work alongside the BBC. I thought this raised some interesting points, but I still wondered where more "grassroots" work would stand. Maybe these issues needed to be brought back to the tensions endemic to the idea of a BBC-tube?

Bill Thompson

Next up was the always interesting Bill Thompson. He put the whole issue in a historical context, taking us back to the early 1920s and the creation of the BBC, when (as he put it) six radio companies started producing media content in order to sell their boxes of technology off the back of. The upshot of this image being the nicely provocative question: do we think of the BBC as a technology company, or media producer? Which made for an interesting reflection of Deverell's contention that the software engineers are the new creatives and, if nothing else, puts the annual complaints about Christmas adverts for digital radio boxes into some perspective. Enacting the rule that the first person to cite Clay Shirky wins, Bill went on to note that "the printing press made monks [seem] slow". Similarly, he suggested, YouTube has made television dull, the internet in general has made public service broadcasting patronising, unappealing and irrelevant.

Bill also highlighted some of the work done by Channel Four, such as diverting budget from daytime educational programming to amazing youth-oriented projects like Smokescreen. With these examples, he also made the point that there are different types and different styles of public service media in a digital age. I really liked this point, and would like to underline that there this relates to different audiences, at different times, for different purposes too. Something I think is especially important in the context of a Channel Four example, considering the aspect of their public service remit which refers to serving diverse and marginal audiences.

Roland Harwood, NESTA

Finally, we heard from Roland Harwood, from NESTA/ 100% Open. He started with the warning that public service media wasn't really his area, but that he could talk about the opening up of large organisations, and the ways in which this relates (positively) to innovation. He started off by joking that the web had killed careers first in music industry, then publishing, and so now he was an advocate for "open innovation". This, broadly, is a desire that industries should share the risks and rewards of innovation, that their default should be "open". Moreover, that increasingly there is no escape from open, that innovation industries must be so. He had some nice examples, Mozilla being a classic one, but also some research done into the 25-39 male demographic by the Discovery Channel, which was shared with other brands. He also referred to work between Great Ormond Street Hospital and McLaren F1 pit-stop crews. Some intensive care staff were joking about the similarity between patient handover and what the pit-stop crews do, and then thought they might be able to learn from them (Sun article, if you're interested). I loved this example, though it did strike me that this was more a matter of listening to the expertise within the hospital as much as reaching out (part of why I liked it).

I wanted to pick up on one of the things Harwood said, that "big didn't necessarily mean bad", and link this to Deverell's point that public service media in a digital age should do less, but better. I also wanted to highlight the fact that we'd been talking about "the public" all day rather than "publics" or "audiences" (Again, cliche, I know. Again: my job). I think this is really significant in terms of the digital age opportunities for public service broadcasting: that there is a greater possibility to serve niche markets (in some respects, this is the long tail argument). So I asked the panel if they thought there was a tension between serving everyone high quality content through Big Broadcasting, or people able to serve lots of people ok with cheaper niche content that appeals to more specific interests. Bill made the very fair point that niche content can serve people a lot better than just "ok", even at a low cost. He also emphasised that there will still be moments where we come together (Obama inauguration, anyone) and, I think more importantly, that facebook serves a lot of people in lots of different ways: we don't necessarily have to put broad- and narrow-casting in opposition to each other.

On Big-Bad, Harwood also drew an interesting comparison in terms of the relative possibilities for openness of media companies vs. "Big Pharma". Lots of people can make their own video and put it up against BBC content on YouTube; it's harder to make your own drugs. I thought this was a salient comparison, although it reflects some complex and very controversial issues (google "open source drugs" or slightly less heavyweight reading, there's this Guardian piece on garage genetics).

16:30. From floor: We wouldn't invent the BBC today. Roland Harwood: We wouldn't invent the NHS (but #welovetheNHS). We wouldn't build St Paul's (something in the architectural metaphor...).

16:45. Example of Chinese restaurants as "open franchise" - because they are all roughly the same, but with no central HQ/ brand.

16:55. David flags up Connection Factory website, especially as a space to ask for help and/ or ideas from other members (e.g. this on studying BBC audiences)

All in all, it was a good day. Thanks to Anna and David for organising it. I don't feel I changed my mind about anything big, or learnt a huge amount of detail. But that isn't necessarily a criticism. I thought through some ideas and I met some interesting people. Both of which are important. It was, on reflection, a little like spending the day stuck inside a really geeky episode of Media Talk, or perhaps a media-themed Digital Planet (n.b. in my opinion, that's a good thing).

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