So Different, Yet So Similar: Opportunities and Challenges for PSBs Around the World

May 26, 2017

Different contexts, similar challenges, ongoing need. These were the key phrases defining a recent panel discussion on Public Service Broadcasting: Opportunities, and Challenges from Around the Globe. As a continuing involvement in the discussions about the state, and the future, of public media around the world, CMDS took part in a panel of the Broadcast Education Association, in 23 April 2017 in Las Vegas. The panel provided an update on public service broadcasting from different parts of the world, as well as an update on the Global PSM Expert Network, a project affiliated with CMDS.

Matthew Powers, from of the University of Washington, who was our guest lecturer in 2016, opened the panel with a presentation of his study (with Rodney Benson and Tim Neff) of 12 mature public broadcasting institutions in Western Europe and elsewhere. One aim of the research was to identify a range of responses to the challenges these organizations have shared in recent years. One of the key obstacles identified by the research was funding for continuing development, and even continuing relevance, of these inherently strong public service broadcasting (PSB) institutions. The trend is that for all researched organizations, funding is either declining or has not kept up with the rising operational costs. Also, the mechanism of funding is a shared concern, in that the traditional means of license fees is seen as inadequate in capturing the way people consume media today.  Another shared issue is the question of oversight: How should the public service mission be fulfilled in the digital age and how could PSBs maintain their independence from government control? One finding is that the more vague and weak the charters and laws governing public service broadcasting, the more vulnerable the organizations are for influence and changes.

Des Freedman, Professor of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, presented a fresh view on the very issue of remit and oversight. As the project lead for the Future of Public Service Television Inquiry, he reflected on the state of public service television in the UK and noted that the focus on television is timely and important: A decade ago many thinkers were predicting the death of television; instead, TV as a medium has reinvented itself and developed new business models with the likes of Amazon and Netflix. What follows is that we need to begin to understand public service television of the future in an entirely new way: not as channels and organizations, but as a guiding set of principles which will find different expressions in different contexts and relationships, and not only in linear broadcasting channels.

The public service television of the future: A set of principles and relationships. - Des Freedman

Freedman’s call for a re-definition of public service broadcasting may be needed also in cases where the PSB as an organizational arrangement is new, and public service remit is unclear and developing, or, challenged. Associate Professor at the American University in Cairo, Rasha Abdulla, in her presentation What Does Egypt Need to Have a Proper Public Service Broadcaster? illustrated such a case. She stressed that currently, there is no real difference between the concepts of public and state broadcaster in Egypt. In fact, the broadcaster is dubbed as “Egyptian television” to indicate its official status. Its funding comes directly from the government and it has great human resources. In addition, the recent formation of the National Media Council has evoked concerns, given that figures opposing the ruling regime were excluded from the formation. Some efforts to form a new public broadcaster, with new funding, have been stumped as such an initiative could not get a broadcasting license.

While the cases of mature PSB contexts, and that of Egypt, for instance, seem drastically different, there are underlying similarities, in terms of what researcher-experts view as core issues and challenges. Minna Aslama Horowitz, the coordinator of the Global PSM Experts Network in collaboration with CMDS, discussed the take-aways of the network's membership survey, focusing on common concerns and research needs around the world. A survey to some 180 members of the Network confirmed the pertinence of issues addressed by the panelists: funding, independence, digitalization, and relationship with audiences. It also highlighted a global consensus that PSB remits should, and can, protect and strengthen freedom of expression and safeguard quality journalism. At the same time, public media are something different than public digital platforms and intermediaries. The survey indicated that we need to urgently begin to define the concept of public service media (PSM), a commonly used term, but a non-established practice. PSM may indeed need to involve a variety stakeholders and relationships, to overcome these similar challenges in different contexts.