July 2002
In favour of public service broadcasting.

In favour of public service broadcasting.

As current financial stories in the US conspire to make it fairly obvious that giving the greedy unregulated chances to enrich themselves is pretty well guaranteed to lead to excesses, we thought it timely to defend a non-market led power in broadcasting, that of a properly funded public service broadcaster. We particularly value one that is in no way funded by advertising or sponsorship since this provides an even greater difference in emphasis and culture.

This is the case in the UK but here the opposition Conservative party seems to be thinking in terms of castrating the BBC, hiving off some of its output like the Radio 1 and 2 channels into the commercial sector and leaving a rump that would pose much less of an audience threat to commercial interests.

The argument for a licence-funded public broadcaster is more easily made, we opine, in the UK and Europe where public broadcasters dominated early broadcasting, than in the US where the commercial model dominated from early days.

The history of broadcasting in both continents has subsequently exposed many of the strengths and weaknesses in both models but we feel the US is worse served because of the comparative weakness of its public broadcasting and Europe benefits most where there is a combination of commercial and public broadcasting with the latter being given a broad but clearly defined remit that limits the power of a party or individual in power to exert too much influence (compare, for example Italy and the power and influence of PM Berlusconi and the UK and the comparative power and influence of PM Blair).

We would also emphasize that our argument is most strongly targeted in terms of public broadcasters whose funding comes from a licence fee only (as for example the BBC) rather than from a combination of licence fee and advertising (as for example Irish state broadcaster RTÉ or Japanese state broadcaster NHK)

The economic argument.

To many people the idea that there is any economic argument for public service broadcasting will seem strange but we would contend that the very fact of having a public and commercial sector produces a form of competition that is of itself is valuable in economic terms just as having competitors in business is, in the long term, better for an economy than having monopolies.

Without regulation there will be a tendency to consolidation and monopoly in business and such tendencies need some form of curbs to prevent monopolies since these tend to be less innovative than businesses in a highly competitive environment.

In broadcasting we would argue that diversity is even more important since its "product" affects the way in which the very nature of society and business is perceived.

We would accept, however, that a public broadcaster can tend to become complacent and wasteful without the disciplines of competition as from commercial broadcasters and without some oversight of how effectively it spends its income

The cultural argument.

Much more important than any economic argument in our view is the overwhelming cultural argument for a strong public broadcaster. The very fact that its remit is to serve its audience as citizens rather than just consumers has immense cultural significance: it opens the door to more consideration of the general public space and interest than is the case with a commercial operation.

It is also axiomatic that a public service broadcaster's remit is likely to include such concerns as reflecting national and regional cultures and identity with less pressures from the accountants to do so only when it favours the "bottom line"; indeed the BBC remit trinity, to educate, entertain and inform, still has much resonance.

In that trinity, the entertain part is the one most likely t be affected by competition from the commercial sector, which needs to deliver a sizeable audience of the right demographic to attract advertising, subscription or pay-per-view revenues.
The educate part, in its wider meaning of expanding minds and horizons, is tremendously important to society in general and here the public broadcaster is likely to be the one that influences the commercial sector and impels it to compete in some areas if only for prestige and reputation reasons.

The inform part is also important and again an area where the public service remit is likely to lead to a wider range of output and more choice than a purely commercial environment.

The cost and benefits of public service broadcasting.

Looking at the figures for the BBC of some 170 USD a year for two main TV channels, 24 hour TV news, and five analogue national radio networks plus additional digital and local radio analogue services and more digital radio and TV output to come seems to us to compare pretty favourably with the USD120 per annum subscription to US satellite radio (and even better compared to subscription satellite or cable TV packages). There is no charge for radio as such since it rides in on the back of TV.

True it depends in part on economies of scale and is a form of tax rather than a strictly voluntary licence payment but it does seem to us an excellent investment of the public's money just as the BBC World Service is an excellent investment by Britain's Foreign Office.

In addition as technology allows on-demand access to archives, the existence of a vast public archive will be of tremendous value to a country.

In all pretty well a no-brainer we would argue for all but the mean minded or the greedy in the commercial sector. Public service and non-profit is far from a dirty concept: it's one that benefits society in general and also is to the long-term benefit of business.

Any views? Please comment on the above. For that matter, if you can put the time aside, we'd like your "Guest comment" pages this year to stimulate more feedback and dialogue.

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