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PSB in the digital age

Luke Crawley and myself attended the Public Service Broadcasting in the Digital Economy Conference held in Lisbon March 28-29 2007.

This was an important, at times fascinating and at times infuriating, conference.

It was organised by EURO-MEI, the European organisation of broadcasting unions of which BECTU is a forceful and active member, and with the financial support of the European Commission which is currently heavily involved in looking at the rules for broadcasting in the new digital age.

Bringing together representatives of the unions from public service broadcasters across the European Union is a huge job in itself;

  • it brings together the “old” style broadcasters-unions from the Scandinavian and north European countries, where there is still largely a license fee, a strong public belief in PSB and social responsibility, and firm commitment to union representation;
  • alongside are the “new” countries from the south of Europe – Spain, Portugal, Greece – where there is often strong, if fragmented, unionisation but usually also far more government control of national channels and some bizarre funding formulae often including subscription and advertising;
  • and then there are the new joiners from the old east Europe – the Czechs, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia and Slovakia were all represented ; those countries have tended to leave themselves in an enormous mess; the end of state communism generally resulted in a mass destruction of the old unions and the formation of a myriad of new ones (Latvia has 38 unions in its broadcasting industry!).

    It’s also resulted in general loathing at governmental level of any form of social responsibility in broadcasting (or anything else come to that) and a desire to leave it to the market, which has left PSB stations under-funded and vulnerable to takeover.

Given all that, discussions were far-ranging and often haphazard, and many times we were overwhelmed with feelings that so many countries still look to our system as a perfect template – while we were keen to stress to them the dangers currently facing that system from the free marketeers and political enemies.

Initial sessions had speeches from many high-ranking Portuguese broadcasters, unionists and ministers, and identified several areas for concern in the digital world:

  • technological worries, especially for older viewers
  • “get what you want” – the more there is on demand, the fewer programmes will be made which build a surprise audience, and so the more focus-group driven commissions there will be, and only progs with a guaranteed audience will be made – it seemed axiomatic to us that one of the purposes of PSB is to make the high-risk programmes, sponsor the edgy performers – and in terms of union fights to protect jobs and skills quality employment is a prerequisite of quality in the media;
  • Is UGC more than a fad? The internet has a history of phenomenal growth followed by enormous crash; while there is undoubtedly a future for UGC in instant news access and on sites like utube, clearly there are major issues, especially of copyright (already beginning in the US courts) and quality – we must continue to believe that we can provide the quality programmes which no-one else can;
  • The tendency for PSB to auto-destruct – for instance, the BBC is so determined to embrace the new age that in Europe it is often seen as ranging itself alongside the big commercial players – the dangers of that double game are being seen in the License Fee negotiations but also in the bbcjam issue, where the BBC is losing much support it might naturally expect from social democrats because of its nakedly commercial view on other maters digital;
  • Question: “When will we have time to read with all these new services?” Answer: “They’ll be so full of crap we’ll be delighted to get back to a good book!”

Presentation by Natalie Piakowski, the European Broadcasting Union’s Legal Advisor, was really interesting and quite worrying:

  • She said the interests of the market are clearly being put ahead of those of the public – this is done by talking only of the “consumer”, about choice being paramount, and diminishing purchase cialis online the role of social elements in broadcasting – eg public political debate, minority interest progs, blue sky commissioning;
  • European legislation demands quality standards from PSB channels, but quality costs!
  • Digital is becoming obsessed with information and access above all other considerations, and as ends in themselves rather than concerns about content or moderated debate
  • The Dutch have already switched off analogue – we should have a close look at how this was achieved to see what lessons we can learn
  • The old battleground has not merely shifted but vanished – mainstream TV is no longer of huge interest to the commercial publishers and broadcasters, it’s now about websites, on-demand and interactive services. Maybe the future of ITV lies with its gameshow lines once digital recording devices can get rid of all adverts for us!

Anna Herold, from the European Commission Directorate General on Information Society and Media – a specialist in Audiovisual and Media Policies.

  • There is a draft Audiovisual Media Services directive coming, and a review of the Electronic Communications Framework
  • EC backs switchover because it offers enhanced viewer experience; is demanded by the internet market; and enables “more efficient” use of spectrums – all free market criteria
  • There is a danger of regulating down to the levels of the new states
  • Why does “the market” never seem to be applied to products like junk food?
  • She said that “the market will not deliver what should be delivered to citizens by public sector broadcasters” – leaving the questions, who will be regulated to do that then, and how will it be paid for – and raises the concern that PSB channels in Europe will become like the American one, always begging for money and making few progs of its own, and less the dominant content supplier it has always been in Europe.
  • The European Commission is now looking at new rules and revisions on the role of PSB in new technology – it’s unhappy with the number of complaints from commercial companies about PSB involvement especially in online services and want to tighten rules to stop this – we’re already seeing the impact of this in bbcjam issue; they seem to be looking at the UK approach of a Public Value Test followed by a Market Impact Assessment as a template – could be worse, but we know how time- and effort-consuming such a template can be;
  • There was a strong feeling amongst delegates that while many countries’ PSBs did not yet have a strong online presence, they should have the right to do so especially in educational and informational sites where commercial publishers wouldn’t go without profits.
  • Across Europe the giant commercial corporations are using this opportunity to re-open the argument of “what use is PSB?” at the very time when all public polls show strong support for the values of PSB.

Some other thoughts collected from the conference which give us all cause for concern, or food for thought -

  • Do we need to re-define what we mean by PSB? Can it any longer be about rivalry with commercial stations, especially as they withdraw at a rate of knots from high-quality programming – but should it rather be based on Independence, Reliability and Honesty?
  • Archive Issues – impact of independent production, as indies own future rights so progs don’t give into the archive or are freely available for repeats despite being paid for out of the License Fee
  • Outsourcing is “a race to the bottom.”!!!!
  • The French unions were absolutely horrified by the notion of VJs – interesting given the debates in the Presidency election about France’s way of doing things!
  • The BBC is a huge player in the European market – only five companies are bigger, Bertelsmann, Vivendi Universal, Reed Elsevier, ARD and Pearson – and accordingly are seen as a PSB using its vast commercial muscle often against other commercial players – it’s a line the BBC crosses at its peril!

Building a Europe-wide campaign to defend Public Service Broadcasting:

We need to agree on what PSB actually IS; the range of differences across Europe amongst unions are huge – for instance, KMSfB Austria found the use of freelances in PSB channels anathema, while the Danes from FAF only represented freelances! They could divide us fatally unless we coalesce around key values –

So what should those values be?

  • Independence from state and commercial influence
  • Autonomous funding
  • Editorially trustworthy and honest
  • Technologically innovative and accessible
  • Diverse – for minorities (including the linguistic)
  • Must maintain significant (50%) in-house production across all genres
  • Significant regional/local presences
  • Quality of production and journalistic standards
  • Training to be undertaken for industry standards
  • Develop a “popular language” so that PSB not only has regional and local voices, but also a wider pan-European and internationalist voice

We should not apologise for public funding – we should be selling it a sa positive aspect of quality, independent, honest, accessible PSB;

We should make our case on our remit to Inform, Educate and Entertain, and to do that we need funding free from commercial constraints;

We need to fight at national and European political levels, but also actively engage in this battle with our audiences as we’re confident they’ll support us.

Don’t campaign against commercial companies, campaign FOR BSB – but be aware that commercial companies are using the review to try and restrict PSB access to new media.

UNI-Mei (the international federation of unions to which BECTU belongs) has stirring and worthwhile policy declarations which can be significant rallying points fro unionists:

“United we will be stronger to continue our historic struggle to:

  • Maintain the identity of the world’s cultures
  • Protect and improve intellectual property rights
  • Safeguard and strengthen public service broadcasting and defend the rights of workers in commercial networks
  • Give to the large number of casual workers their rightful status through collective agreements and statutory provision”

“The restructuring of the market and new technology in no way affects the importance and the relevance of PSB to society or alter its core values. The new digital technologies that reinforce both commercial pressures and globalisation, do not reduce the role of PSB, on the contrary, they increase the need for it.”

Posted by Mark Scrimshaw

Filed under: Europe

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