The benign ecology of Public Broadcasting

Imagine that one day you wake up and public broadcasting is gone – would you miss anything? It is probably not an easy question, depending on the country you live in, the quality, diversity, governance and cost of its respective public broadcasting system, your personal media habits, or whether you prefer radio or television. But it is quite an essential question. It came up at a conference on the sidelines of this year’s Rose d’Or festival in, Lucerne, Switzerland, on 5 May 2009.

Rose d’Or is an annual event devoted exclusively to TV entertainment programming. Compared with the busy TV trade fairs at Cannes, it has always been a relatively quiet event. Rose d’Or is a meeting place where commissioning editors, producers and journalists watch, discuss and examine the latest international formats away from hectic schedules. Until a few years ago, when it still was located at Montreux on Lake Geneva, it had a rather glamorous show-biz air. Now in Lucerne, the event was tucked away in the back rooms of a Grand Casino building – so barely noticeable to any outsiders.

As a result, the turnout for an afternoon gathering co-hosted by the EJC, titled “Stand and deliver: Creating public value in a new media economy”, left a bit to be desired, despite featuring top-tier speakers and panel participants from the TV sector.

German TV producer and media consultant, Lutz Hachmeister, began by analysing the concept of Public Value. It is, he said, a purely economic term applied to sectors like waste management, defence policy, or, in this case, broadcasting. He was right about that – the theory of Public Value was developed chiefly by economists and is dyed in the wool by their point of view. However, there may be more to it.

First, there was Public Administration – the 19th-century-idea that government knows what is best for the people and that it should enforce this knowledge regardless of any objections, resistance, or cost. In the worst case, this resulted in state broadcasting. Even in better cases, it inspired a lot of patronising, top-down programming with little choice for the audience.

In the second half of the 20th century, that was replaced by the notion of New Public Management. This meant that the public sector should act as if it were a commercial company and a regular player on the market. Cost-efficiency, privatisation and competitiveness are the hallmarks of this thinking. Consequently, many countries introduced or strengthened private broadcasting, and many pubcasters came up with increasingly commercial programmes of their own. Rather than pleasing the government, they now focused on pleasing the audience.

The latest development in this history (and one particularly welcome in times of economic crisis) is the concept of Public Value. It demands that the public be served in the best possible way, irrespective of whether that entails economic efficiency or social benefits, or both at the same time. But the really important innovation of the Public Value theory is that it is based on a consultative approach. All stakeholders, economic or otherwise, have a right to weigh in on any decisions made.

Yet this notion has not yet reached public broadcasting, despite efforts to establish a Public Value Test. As the BBC’s Creative Director, Alan Yentob, stated in Lucerne: Future Public Value in broadcasting must come out of a “reciprocal relationship” with the audience, with citizens commenting on programme content as well as actually contributing to it.
The old rules of television, such as audience flow, inheritance effects, competitive scheduling, etc., which essentially amounted to tricking the viewers into watching something they did not intend to watch in the first place, are now being replaced by new and more democratic rules, which however prove no less effective: Recommendations, peer-to-peer-distribution, and social networking.

This is where Yentob, Hachmeister and EJC Director Wilfried Rütten were in accord. Hachmeister called for public broadcasting to use its independence to create a new grammar and vocabulary for the multimedia age, to come up with new kinds of formats and new aesthetics. In the same vein, Rütten observed that many pubcasters, of all organisations, tend to attract a particularly risk-averse and thus counter-innovative staff. This is ironic, since they are not for profit anyway and much less subject to the ups and downs of the economy than most other players.

Rütten suggested that the yardstick to measure the success of public broadcasting programmes be changed. Looking at how many people watch a certain programme in total can be deceiving, because that depends on marketing efforts and many external circumstances (e.g., whether there is a big football match or a blockbuster movie on another channel). Instead, he argued, pubcasters should closely look at what those people do who have actually started watching a show. Are they fleeing in large numbers, or does the programme manage to retain their attention?

Alan Yentob spun this into an appeal to safeguard what he called “the benign ecology of public broadcasting”.

He convincingly demonstrated that the BBC has successfully been acting on that maxim. Despite criticism in detail, it is generally recognised as the world’s foremost public broadcaster. Yentob said that the BBC puts a lot of effort into understanding the future and develops new programmes, new distribution technologies, and new services accordingly. While commercial stations are faltering all around the globe, the BBC and a few other resilient pubcasters are growing stronger, improving their public reputation, and better serving their audiences.

Public broadcasters anywhere would be well advised to convert this current tailwind into genuine and verifiable long-term Public Value strategies. Surprisingly, the best may be still to come.