In recent years, a vital element of democracy – public service broadcasting – has been faced with declining budgets, audience fragmentation and debate over its actual role in a multichannel environment. Even so, ‘public service broadcasting’ remains a significant aspect of the British broadcasting landscape to a minor extent. This article traces British public service broadcasting back to its origins and its root principles; clarifies the nature and role of public service broadcasting in a democratic society, and discusses solutions for its future sustainability (with reference to the BBC).
Definition and role of public service broadcasting There is no standard definition of what public service broadcasting exactly comprises, although a number of official bodies have attempted to pick out the key characteristics. According to the Broadcasting Research Unit, its key goals or hallmarks may be outlined under eight headings: More succinctly, public service broadcasting can be thought of as a universal service; receiving funds from the public, guiding its own operations to a considerable extent and addressing its audiences primarily as citizens, not as consumers, a factor which insulates public service broadcasting from both political and commercial influence.According to Four Theories of the Press, the Authoritarian; the Libertarian; the Soviet Communist and the Social Responsibility are acknowledged as the most appropriate categories used to describe how different media systems operate in the world (Serverin, Tankard, Jr.
, 1979:338). The British media system can be placed within the overlapping categories of Libertarian and Social Responsibility; a position which means that the system need not only stick to ‘the liberalist narrative’ but can also encompass social morality, justice and responsibility, and provide a public service.Since its birth in the 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been commonly perceived as an exemplary public institution whose principal role is essentially a democratizing one, contributing to the on-gonging cumulative empowerment of the public. A key radical theme of Reith’s brief in 1942, was that the BBC had a high moral responsibility to carry into the greatest number of homes possible everything that is best in every sphere of human endeavour and achievement (Reith, Shankleman, 2000:70).In its public service form, the BBC acquires its funding primarily through the licence fee system, which, unlike advertising revenue, is immune to commercial pressure, in order to guarantee the balance of cost versus the execution of the public service mission. The licence fees are set by Parliament and go directly to the funding of the BBC.
Thus the BBC serves not the queen or the Prime Minister but the public.Western economy is regulated by laws of supply and demand, and public initiative is generally used to ‘rectify’ the ‘market error’ (Just ; Latzer, 2000:24, 395-441). In contrast, European television represents a massive exception to this general rule. Public service broadcasting does not play a subsidiary role and it attracts at least 40% of the audience (Pardo, 2002:47). European governments believed that state monopolies set up in each country were a better safeguard of the quality of the broadcasting and television service and pluralism of information (Tabemero, 2004:2).Therefore, in general, the state delegates a public management institute to be responsible for supervising the operation of public service broadcasting.
By adapting to social change, to demands for new services, and to organizational reform, the broadcasting system in Britain was transformed from a monopoly to a duopoly with the creation of ITV in competition with the BBC in 1955 (Avery, 1993:4).Challenges to public service broadcasting Two related trends bear some influence on the debates concerning public service broadcasting. In the first place, the current offensive against public service broadcasting comes during an era of nearly unprecedented technological revolutions in communication and information. Digital signals relax spectrum constraints, greatly increasing the number of channels that can be broadcast (Avery,1993:1). The mass media is tremendously competitive, and as such, it can be difficult for a public service broadcaster to survive amongst commercial interests, especially with the increased number of channels that digital broadcasting provides.Satellite transmission, cable, and Web-casting have all successively seemed to de-legitimize some of public service broadcasting’s key claims to public funding, notably its provision of diversity and innovation. However, with the liberalization of the rules on satellite television reception at the end of May, 1985, the floodgates of new television choice opened upon Britain. Anybody who can attain planning permission can now install a ‘dish’, giving them access to satellite channels on pay-TV (MacCabe & Stewart, 1986:74).
This will speed up the decline in audience numbers for existing public broadcasting channels or networks, because increased viewing choices will mean decreased viewing time. There is now more opportunity to choose between broadcasting services, a greater diversity in programmes, and a greater variety of channels and television service providers. So TV audiences and radio have characteristically moved away from public service broadcasting. The proliferation of viewing opportunities leads to two consequences: a change in the viewing habits on which public broadcast ethos is based and a change in the content of material broadcast.
When the BBC was a monopoly organization, the licence fee provided an adequate source of revenues. In recent years, however, this has ceased to be the case. The real value of the licence fee has grown at a relatively slow space and has never quite caught up with the rate of inflation. In contrast, the cost of producing the most popular programmes has become increasingly inflated, a cost which can no longer be covered by finite license fees. In any case, licence fee funding is likely to decline relative to the proliferation of advertising and subscription revenues enjoyed by commercial broadcasters.The U.K.
consultancy, Zenithmedia, estimated that European television advertising finance would rise by 50% between 1994 and 2004, and subscription finance was estimated to rise by a factor of 6 in the same period, that is, by 600% (Zenithmedia, 2005). No one expects licence fee finance to rise by such a proportion. Acquiring its funds just through the licence fees, the BBC is like an island of welfare in an ocean of commercialism. There is no denying that funding sources (for the existing public broadcast service system of provision) come under serious pressure in a multichannel environment, threatening its long-term viability.According to the figures provided by Ofcom, in 1990, 47 percent of the audience watched BBC1 and BBC2. By 2003, the combined share of both channels had declined to only 35.6 percent of the audience (Ofcom, 2004). By the time the next BBC Charter is due to expire in 2016 we can be certain that every home in the UK will have access to far more channels than today so that decline looks set to continue.
The BBC’s continual decline in ratings is a result of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the licence fee. Why should we be forced to pay for television we do not watch? As a compulsory charge on all viewers, the licence fee is subject to the constraint of popular acceptability. When audiences begin to display a resistance to the licence fee, the fate of the BBC will become uncertain.Moreover, public service broadcasters in Britain are participating in the debate over their proper role. Brain McNair pointed out that the following function are upheld in the communication media of ‘ideal-type’ democratic societies: surveillance, education, a platform for political discourse, a ‘watchdog’ role and an advocacy function (Mcnair, 1995:21).
The aim of the establishment of public service broadcasting lies in the constitution of ‘the fourth power’ which has an affinity with the public; outside administration, legislation and judicature. The social sphere consists of the public sphere and the private sphere.Once the government interferes in the public sphere excessively, it will result in the atrophy of public political discourse, which can result in the government no longer being regarded as the trustworthy executant of public opinion and its social protector. If none other than the government expand the function of the public sphere, it can guarantee a greater diaphaneity and fair standing (Giddens, 1998:47).The BBC represents the paradigm of public service broadcasting, enjoying undisputed independence from the Government (Scriven ; Lecomte, 1999:128), and its coverage of the war in Iraq has caused serious embarrassment to the British Government. However, British judge Lord Hutton’s Report of the Inquiry into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr. David Kelly C.M.G., challenged the independence of the BBC and influenced the condition of ‘the forth power’ to some extent and resulted in a ‘Chilling Effect’ upon an entire journalistic field.