May 2006

Real choice: Quality, the internet, and the need for public service broadcasters.

Real choice: Quality, the internet, and the need for public service broadcasters.

Choice, we are continually persuaded is good of itself and increasing in media but in broadcast media the choice offered is often limited to different packaging of the same ingredients, is often a delusion, and in many cases perverted by the demands of politics and commerce.

Yet for those with good broadband connections it is different since people can leap-frog local geographic limitations to get audio programming from a wider range of perspectives and experiences.

How in such circumstances it may be asked can the narrowness of mind so often betrayed in many areas - for radio, be it choice of music, sports cover, entertainment , or information and opinionated programming - persist and in many ways increase?

Paradoxically the answer may lay, as well as in commercial imperatives, in the choice itself - so much people do not have the time to search out the worthy from the rubbish - combined with laziness and a predilection to tap into sources that confirm existing tastes without expanding experience and be unwilling to step beyond normal boundaries and the familiar.

In these circumstances, we would argue, the value of a strong public broadcaster is increased not diminished since it does allow a degree of reputation that can be relied upon unlike much of the material on the internet: On addition public broadcasters make a much wider range of programming available online than their commercial competitors.

To us the above means it should not be hard to comprehend the argument that the market is not the best way to provide everything although it is a vital component of having adequate choice since both public broadcasters and commercial ones have limitations, albeit different ones.

Most people will concede the case for the market to provide some audio services but the free-market bigots do seem to have trouble conceding the value of the public sector so we felt it useful to consider both areas' inadequacies, ways in which the internet can improve things, and the challenges this may pose to existing media.

Commercial media shortfalls.

We would contend that for some areas the market is, or can be, just as dangerous for a democracy as totalitarian political control; in others that it can disguise the limitations of choice being offered; and in others that the interests of big businesses can easily work against the interests of citizens just as much as those of big government.

Let us consider a few areas that affect radio:

* In terms of music, a recording company will only make a good return on its investment if a record sells in large numbers and a music-format commercial station needs to attract a large enough audience segment to be profitable.
*Equally in some areas of entertainment the high costs of making programmes, even if they are popular, militates against the success of various genres. Drama, for example, is expensive to produce and the audience for it has largely moved from radio to TV in the US, largely we suggest not because there isn't an audience but because the profit margin isn't enough.
*In terms of news, covering a story properly is fairly expensive whilst reading or packaging agency information is comparatively cheap: It's noticeable how many US news radio stations have fairly small reporting staffs and largely relay on packaging material from other sources. There's also a question of how far a large advertiser can influence what is or isn't covered, whatever may be said of editorial independence.
*And of course in terms of finance, he who pays the piper calls the tune meaning that as long as advertisers want a younger and reasonably affluent target audience, commercial radio stations are going to be skewed away from the "less desirable demographics."

Then comes the clincher for many people - you have to pay one way or the other and there is no choice for terrestrial radio listeners in the commercial sector about the way you pay, namely having to accept adverts whether or not they disrupt the programming or determine its nature - how, for example, could you transmit a live classical concert and include commercials without destroying the performance? For the two subscription satellite channels the choice to pay is very often making the choice to avoid the adverts but these latter have been constrained - and NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) lobbying intends that they should remain constrained - so as to exclude them from local programming, not just local adverts.

Public broadcaster shortfalls.

Whilst we think a well-funded public broadcaster such as the BBC can in general offer a wider range - certainly when it comes to radio the BBC does in our view reach many places where UK commercial radio doesn't tread - it isn't all a one-way street.

In any case where government can control or limit funding there is a well-founded concern that this will lead to government pressures to meet its agenda rather than one chosen by the broadcaster. The pressures are different to those from advertisers but real nevertheless and often very difficult to resist, even if just on the basis of being worn down by having to answer many complaints that commercial broadcasts can often ignore from politicians (well at least they can unless particular legislation they want passing or defeating is on the horizon, in which case we suspect spines are likely to become more supple than stiff).

Within this area we would include pressures to limit or skew news and current affairs coverage, to limit remits so as to exclude areas that the commercial sector thinks will be more profitable for itself should public broadcaster competition be excluded, and to come down harder on a public broadcaster than a commercial one when an issue is controversial, thus tending to keep the broadcaster away from investigating such issues, however much they may be in the public interest.

In other cases, of course, the government simply controls but often in those countries it also attempts to control all media and information it dislikes - and commercial media (think China) go along for the sake of continued existence.

The benefits of having both public and private broadcasters.

We would argue that the very existence of a competing sector is beneficial. In the US the launch of satellite radio has in our view been a plus for those who do not subscribe in that it has forced some change on existing broadcasters but public broadcasting has been fairly limited in its scope and NAB lobbying has also limited the growth of low-power FM and the service it could provide for communities. We suspect that had NAB lost some of its lobbying that local stations might well have been forced to boost their local cover to meet the challenge, again to the benefit of all.

Elsewhere satellite is in its infancy and WorldSpace, the only international satellite radio provider is only available in limited geographic areas but even then it does seem to be having some impact on terrestrial broadcasters' programming and thinking.
In countries where it is not available, the existence of both public and private broadcasters does widen choice but - regrettably in our view - in some cases the unwillingness to pay for the service means public broadcasters take adverts albeit in most cases on their TV services but not radio, at least giving an advert-free option (As in Canada for example where a relative, who strongly supports the new Harper government nevertheless listens to CBC radio on the basis of no adverts).

We should also not disregard a very important aspect of having public and private sectors in terms of the choices open to would-be staff who thereby gain extra options in terms of the range and style of programming they can work on.

Internet pluses.

The internet has vastly improved choice but it cannot create extra time and the main problem in our view is sorting the wheat from the chaff, a problem particularly acute with audio, which demands real time listening.

This has led us to particularly appreciate those broadcasters, mainly public ones it has to be said, who offer programmes via MP3s as well as streaming audio - and by MP3s we do not mean podcasts.

This is because podcasts, convenient though they may be when one is planning to listen to a particular programme every day, week or whenever, are a cluttering mechanism when the content is something sometimes well worth a listen but at other times not.

The real choice therefore is when it is possible to choose to listen to a live or on-demand stream and also be able to scan a rundown and choose to download an MP3 when this appears to have the desired content with a podcast offer a convenience for programmes that will be listened to regularly and a nuisance when often the text detail provided is skimpy and there isn't time to listen to check if the programme is worth listening to. In those cases podcasts in our view are like e-mails that are subscribed to but with requiring more time than it does to evaluate a text e-mail before junking or reading it.

Whatever is offered though, the ability to listen to broadcasts from around the world is not to be undervalued: It is a tremendous advance and as wireless broadband expands will inevitably in our view cut into listening to off-air broadcasts. So for those who want it, is the ability to download music - a two-way plus since it offers orchestras and bands, which are not big enough names to attract a recording contract, a fairly inexpensive means to distribute their work to - and be paid for by - a worldwide audience.

If for this reason only, we think the concept of net neutrality needs to be preserved rather than allowing ISPs to give priority to the already-advantaged big companies.

The whole range of offerings provide a challenge to the broadcasters to match the offerings of competition from far away as well as keeping a local edge but it may be a challenge too much for some. That we may regret but we prefer the availability of the new offerings and can only hope the development of community radio can allow local broadcast options where commercial stations fail.

What you think? Please E-mail your comments.

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