This House supports public service broadcasters

Almost all countries have, in one form or another, at least one public service broadcaster, These often exist alongside privately owned commercial rivals. Many of these PSBs (Public Service Broadcasters) were created around the 1920’s out of technological necessity rather than ideological preference for public ownership: when many of the PSBs came into existence there were limited transmission wavelengths so regulation was required to provide the utility. This often resulted in the creation of PSBs. It should come as no surprise that these historically-shaped institutions differ significant from country to country, not least in the ways they are organized, regulated and funded. Although there is not one single definition, public service broadcasting commonly refers to good quality content provided to all (universal accessibility) free at point of consumption (affordable). These characteristics underline the fundamental role of PSB in a given society which is to serve the interests of all citizens and enable them to actively participate in the social and political lives within their societies.

In the 21st century the global media landscape is much different from when the PSBs were originally setup. Broadcasting markets are now segmented. Media users have much more choice brought about in part through the advent of digital technologies which have allowed for a greater number of channels to exist. More recently, alongside the increased choice brought about by digital broadcasting, both PSBs and private commercial broadcasting organizations have been also facing challenges from online based services. These services have further fragmented and de-nationalized media markets.

There are three main ways to fund PSBs, each of which has different implications for broadcasting output and editorial decisions. the three main funding methods are: 1) The License Fee/Taxation model as used by the BBC in Britain whereby each household which owns a TV is required to pay a yearly fee to the public-broadcaster which operates independently from Government, 2) The Donation/Underwriter model as used by the American network PBS, whereby the majority of finance is raised by public donations alongside underwriting spots which are paid for by commercial entities; these underwriting spots are displayed at the beginning and end of programming and are subject to strict content limitations. 3) Mixed funding whereby the public service broadcaster relies on a combination of public funds and advertising revenue (usually within limitations) like the ARD and the ZDF in Germany, the KBS in South Korea, and the CBC in Canada. 

In a large majority of countries public utilities such as water, electricity, and telecommunications have been entirely privatized. Given this huge amount of privatization of state-owned sectors over the past twenty to thirty years it seems surprising that broadcasting has stood apart from this trend. So should PSBs be sold off or is there something special about PSBs?  Is ‘public service content’ synonymous with PSBs? Should current public funding for PSBs be shared across all public service content providers? In short, what is the future of PSBs?

Title 
PSBs provide quality and original content that can cater for niche or commercially unattractive market segments
Point 

PSBs create unique content which private broadcasters would be unable to produce as they strive for mass market appeal to satisfy the demands placed upon them by commercial interests looking to purchase advertising. PSBs create more educational and minority output which enriches society rather than just entertaining it.

PSBs can concentrate on creating high quality programming across all genres rather than simply producing mediocre populist programming such as low-cost game shows and reality TV. For example it is unlikely that commercial broadcasters would have aired nightly university lectures as the BBC did with its partnership with the Open University. PSBs are usually among the highest investors in the domestic content industries and nurture local creative talent. 

Counterpoint 

Commercial broadcasters have to directly interact with their audience to ensure that the programming being provided is what the public actually wants to consume. Commercial broadcasters have to pull in audiences whereas the (partly) publicly funded PSBs have a financial safety net which allows them to push content onto the audience in an elitist manner and allows them to essentially tell their audience what is good for them. It is also erroneous to suggest that minority tastes are not served by commercial broadcasters. Technology has allowed for a greater number of broadcast channels and as a result many of these specialize to cater for particular niches, for example, The History Channel.

Title 
PSBs bring nations and people together and are an actively positive force within the mediasphere
Point 

As well as airing programming for minorities which the private broadcasters would not provide,  by providing and presenting content in a manner that resonates with the society in which they operate and by offering universal and affordable access to such content (see definition in the introduction) PSBs can also help  bring people together and thus promote social cohesion. PSBs are able to put people and society first before financial and commercial interests. For example the BBC in its 2005 “Building Public Value” report states that it “aims to serve its audiences not just as consumers, but as members of a wider society, with programmes and services which, while seeking to inform, educate and entertain audiences, also serve wider public purposes”.[1]

[1] BBC (2005) Building Public Value. [online] [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/policies/pdf/bpv.pdf

Counterpoint 

PSBs are a thing of the past. People no longer sit around the Television together. Commercial broadcasters provide more cultural freedom and choice for people. The idea of TV bringing a nation together no longer holds any merit in fragmented globalizing media markets where individualism dominates. TV is now more often than not a solitary experience rather than a communal one. This can be demonstrated by the amount of TV sets owned per household. A marketing report from Nielsen shows that in 1980 49% of US households had only 1 TV set and that 15% had three or more. Compare that with data from 2010 and only 17% of people in the US own only 1 TV set whereas 55% have 3 or more.[1]

[1] Nielsen (2010) U.S. Homes Add Even More TV Sets in 2010. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/u-s-homes-add-even-more-tv-sets-in-2010/

Title 
PSB are better equipped than private broadcasters to air accurate, objective and impartial information and programming
Point 

Advertising limits the types of programming and stories commercial networks will run as they may fear losing lucrative advertising deals with large corporations. As PSBs do not rely (solely) on advertising they are more likely to air programming which is critical towards the practices of large corporations and serve the public interest. For example, In August 2011, PBS aired Food Inc., a documentary that ‘lifted the veil on (the US’) food industry…exposing the underbelly that’s hidden from the American consumer with the consent of (the) government’s regulatory agencies’.[1]

[1] PBS (2011). “Food, Inc. – Synopsis”. [Accessed 6th September, 2011]. Available at: http://www.pbs.org/pov/foodinc/

Counterpoint 

The same could be said equally about PSBs. They are unlikely to broadcast items which may damage their funding stream. In the case of networks using the underwriting model they are also unlikely to broadcast things which underwriters do not approve of. Due to the fragmented and competitive broadcasting market place there will always be a home for programming which challenges businesses and other entities if there is enough public interest in the given issue.

Title 
The relationship between governments and PSBs can be problematic
Point 

The broadcast media has so much power to form opinion that it is dangerous to give politicians too much influence over it. Once in government, a political party can use public ownership and control of television and radio stations to manipulate both the news agenda and its editorial policy - as many Middle-East regimes did during the 2011 Arab Spring. For example in Egypt, during sustained and substantial protests aimed at removing President Hosni Mubarak from office the state run media described protestors as “... ‘Vandals’ and ‘hooligans’. A few hours after Mubarak’s fall, the ‘vandalisers’ had become ‘heroes’, and what [they] had previously described as ‘chaos instigated by foreign powers’ had suddenly become ‘a glorious revolution.’”[1]

[1] Diab, O. (2011) New Egypt, New Media. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/10/egypt-media-newspapers-mubarak-propaganda

Counterpoint 

It is true that government should not be allowed a monopoly over broadcasting, but that is very rare outside totalitarian states. Usually countries have at least one privately owned broadcasting network competing with the public media and so limiting political manipulation by the State. In addition, corporatization, as with the BBC in the UK, or CBC in Canada, sets the broadcaster up as accurate and impartial, allowing for the benefits of public ownership without the risk of political interference. Instead, the greatest risk of bias lies within a purely private broadcasting sector, where the high costs of entry and technological development encourage consolidation to the point where powerful individuals, such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, can manipulate the broadcast agenda in their own interests. Without the balance guaranteed by public service media, meaningful participation by all citizens in the social and political lives of their societies and fair elections might become impossible.

Title 
Privatising PSBs would improve the efficiency of their operations and the quality of their programming
Point 

Privatization would be good for public broadcasters, exposing them to the bracing impact of proper competition and forcing them to focus more effectively upon their strengths while producing efficiencies. When it was privatized, it was expected that New Jersey Public Television could save the state $11million a year.[1] Freed from government control, they would be less exposed to political decisions about the level of license fee or direct subsidy, and better able to raise finance in the capital markets. This would allow them to compete internationally in the changing digital marketplace, developing commercial operations, and ploughing increased profits back into better program making for their domestic market.

[1] McGlone, Penny. (2011) “N.J. public television to undergo name change, cuts in staff”. The Star-Ledger, 7 June 2011. [Accessed 23 August 2011] Available at:  http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/06/nj_public_television_getting_n.html

Counterpoint 

PSBs are already exposed to competition as their audience figures are compared with those of their private rivals, and they constantly have to justify the level of their license fee or subsidy. Outsourcing most actual program making, as the BBC does, provides a competitive environment in which costs can be controlled effectively. Nor does public ownership prevent organizations from raising money - government bodies often resort to bond issues to fund investment. The BBC has successfully launched BBC Worldwide and developed a profitable commercial arm while remaining a public corporation. 

Title 
PSBs funding sources give them an unfair advantage in the broadcasting market, harming competition.
Point 

Public ownership of the media distorts competition, harming private companies in their domestic marketplace and their ability to compete internationally. It does this because the government is funding a service that could be supplied profitably by the private sector - for example, a pop music radio station or the broadcast of sporting events. The market share of private companies inevitably suffers, along with their ability to raise advertising revenue based upon the size of their audience. This means that private broadcasters end up with less money to spend on their programmes and are less well placed to compete internationally. James Murdoch, son of the medal mogul Rupert Murdoch, in his MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2009 echoed this opinion stating that the free news output by the BBC “"threatens the provision of news in Britain".[1]

[1] The Independent (2009) The BBC’s Unhealthy Dominance. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-the-bbcs-unhealthy-dominance-1778976.html

Counterpoint 

Public ownership of broadcasting is good for the citizen/consumer, as it is free once your license fee or taxes have been paid. With the erosion of advertising revenues streams, private broadcasting companies are seeking to make popular programming (such as sports events, concerts or films) subscription based, a trend which risks excluding poorer audiences and threatens social cohesion. Nor is it in the interest of current private broadcasters to see their public rivals privatized and forced to accept advertising, as the overall increase in advertising space would drive down the amount broadcasters could charge advertisers for a spot, reducing their revenues and profits.

Bibliography 

Albertazzi, D, and Cobley, P. (eds.) (2010) The Media: An Introduction. (3rd ed) Longman: Harlow.

BBC (2005) Building Public Value. [online] [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: <http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/policies/pdf/bpv.pdf>

Burton, G. (2005) Media and Society. Open University Press: Maidenhead.

Diab, O. (2011) New Egypt, New Media. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/10/egypt-media-newspapers-mubarak-propaganda>

The Independent (2009) The BBC’s Unhealthy Dominance. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: <http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/leading-articles/leading-article-the-bbcs-unhealthy-dominance-1778976.html>

McQuail, D. (2005) McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. (5th ed) Sage Publications: London.

McGlone, Penny. (2011) “N.J. public television to undergo name change, cuts in staff”. The Star-Ledger, 7 June 2011. [Accessed 23 August 2011] Avaliable at: < http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/06/nj_public_television_getting_n....

Nielsen (2010) U.S. Homes Add Even More TV Sets in 2010. [Accessed 1st June 2011] Available at: <http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/u-s-homes-add-even-more-tv-sets-in-2010/>

PBS (2011). “Food, Inc. – Synopsis”. [Accessed 6th September, 2011]. Available at: <http://www.pbs.org/pov/foodinc/>

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