Public Service Media

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The term "public service media" is generally used to refer to a particular form of radio and television broadcasting that emerged in Western Europe in the 1920s, of which the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the best-known example and most common reference point. Public service broadcasting is still a mainstay in most of Western Europe, as well as in an array of countries as diverse as Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Japan. In various local adaptations, it is also an important model in the emerging media systems of Africa, Asia, and the former Soviet bloc. However, challenged by the pressures of diminishing public funds, the growth of commercial media, new technologies, and globalization, public service broadcasting no longer enjoys the dominant— even, in some countries, monopolistic—position that it once held. It is still nonetheless the most important existing mainstream alternative to commercial broadcasting.

Historically, the public service model dates from the early days of broadcast radio. Initial radio "stations" were established in many parts of the world as early as 1919 (Montreal's XWA and Pittsburgh's KDKA are generally considered to have been the first) by set manufacturers and other commercial organizations, as well as educational, labor, and public interest groups. The future shape of broadcasting was at first unclear. By the mid-1920s, however, sparked by the entrepreneurial initiative of networked programming pioneers such as David Sarnoff (later head of NBC), an advertising-supported commercial model was well established in the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe. Fearful that commercial broadcasting would soon dominate to the exclusion of all other models, educators and public interest associations began lobbying governments to recapture at least part of the new medium for public service purposes. In the United States, noncommercial broadcasting was quickly marginalized, but in Britain, the government created a national public service monopoly, the BBC, and put it in charge of all radio broadcasting.

The justification for this British move was spelled out by a 1923 committee chaired by Sir Frederick Sykes, which stated in its report to Parliament "that the control of such a potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the State, and that the operation of so important a national service ought not to be allowed to become an unrestricted commercial monopoly." The BBC was created in 1926, and most European countries soon followed the British example, while Canada and Australia, among others, adopted "mixed" systems with both public and private-sector components. By the early 1930s, public service broadcasting was well established and began to be typified by distinctive program formats as well as its characteristic institutional structure. When television was introduced in the 1950s, most countries basically incorporated the new medium into the systems that they had put in place for radio, with some important variants, however. In Canada, for example, public radio is commercial-free, while public television depends to an important extent on advertising.

The notion of public service, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, was strongly shaped by the BBC's founding director, Sir John Reith. Reith saw the public as an audience that was capable of growth and development, and he declared famously that the BBC would give the public what it needs, not what it wants. This kind of elitism would later return to haunt the proponents of public service broadcasting when audiences began migrating to private commercial outlets, especially after the introduction of private television. Be that as it may, the mandate of public service broadcasters inspired by the British example was to provide programming that informed and enlightened, as well as entertained. In many countries, this proviso was enshrined in broadcasting legislation. Depending on local circumstances, public service broadcasting was also typically mandated to provide service that would be accessible to all residents of a given national territory, to provide a range of programs that would be of interest to all social and demographic groups, and to contribute to building national cultural identity. Later, more specific objectives such as reflecting regional and linguistic diversity would be added to many official public service broadcasting mandates.

Public service broadcasting is typically organized in a national corporation, with varying degrees of autonomy from the state. In Britain and its former dominions, the public service broadcaster is deemed to operate at "arm's length" from the government, and this proviso at least nominally guarantees the independence of public service broadcasting. Public service broadcasting executives are named by governments but cannot be removed without cause. In France, however, political tradition called for the heads of public service broadcasting institutions to be replaced with every change of government. Generally, while public service broadcasters and the governments that created them have at times been at

Revenue Sources for Broadcasting for 1997
CountryPublic Funding (%)Subscription (%)Advertising (%)
United Kingdom213049
United States34651
SOURCE : Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (1999).

odds over programming choices over the years, the main area of friction surrounds financing.

Public service broadcasting, following the British model, is funded by an annual "license fee," a charge akin to an automobile registration that must be paid by every household that owns a radio or television set. While this funding formula is designed to bypass government interference by providing a direct relationship between the broadcaster and its audience, the fee rates are inevitably set by the government, giving it obvious power over the broadcasting institutions. In some cases, such as Canada and Australia, public service broadcasters are funded by direct annual grants from their respective Parliaments, tainting the process with the potential for political interference even more. Many public service broadcasters also increasingly depend on commercial revenue for at least part of their income, making them reliant on the general regulatory framework in their countries as well. In just about every country with public service broadcasting, there is a lively and more or less permanent debate surrounding the appropriate level of public funding. In Germany, for example, the Constitutional Court ruled in 1994 that funding public service broadcasting appropriately was a government obligation. The figures in Table 1 show the comparative sources of revenue for overall broadcasting activities in seven countries for 1997.

National peculiarities apart, questions concerning the structures of broadcasting are increasingly global ones. In the new broadcasting environment, the issue of public service broadcasting can be reduced to the following question: What social and cultural goals that are attributed to broadcasting require a specially mandated, noncommercially driven organization that is publicly owned, publicly funded, and publicly accountable?

Broadcasters, politicians, media professionals, creative people, community activists, and scholars worldwide are wrestling with this question. While the diagnosis is global, the prescriptions are necessarily specific to context. When they are put together, however, the range of models, examples, and ways of framing the issues include the basis for a global portrait and a sketch of a solution.

There is no easy answer to the question "What is public service broadcasting?" However, a reasonably thorough one can be found in a 1994 document from the Council of Europe, which included a nine-point mission statement that reiterated, in a particularly European perspective, the traditional objectives of public service broadcasting. According to this body, public service broadcasting should provide

  1. a common reference point for all members of the public,
  2. a forum for broad public discussion,
  3. impartial news coverage,
  4. pluralistic, innovative, and varied programming,
  5. programming that is both of wide public interest and attentive to the needs of minorities,
  6. reflection of the different ideas and beliefs in pluriethnic and multicultural societies,
  7. a diversity of national and European cultural heritage,
  8. original productions by independent producers, and
  9. extended viewer and listener choice by offering programs not provided by the commercial sector.

These goals led the Council of Europe to declare that the safeguarding of independent, appropriately funded public service broadcasting institutions is essential to the functioning of the media in a democratic society.

In 1997, the addition of a Protocol on Public Service Broadcasting to the Treaty governing the European Union (EU) highlighted the fact that what was originally a strictly "national" service, although similar in many countries, has become increasingly transnational in the context of globalization. In light of the growing commercialization of all media, public service broadcasting continues to designate a strong value of social worth, the "last best hope" for socially purposeful media acting in the public interest.

The EU protocol considers "that the system of public broadcasting in the Member States [of the European Union] is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism." This in itself is important in terms of legitimating public service broadcasting at a time when its basis is under attack on both ideological and economic grounds. It links public service broadcasting to the question of democracy, emphasizes its sociocultural nature as a public service, and underscores the distinctive role of public service broadcasting in an otherwise uniformly commercial system.

The context of technological convergence and the accompanying policy debates can help to further clarify the concept of public service with respect to media generally and, hence, to develop a more appropriate conception of public service broadcasting. In telecommunication, for example, the concept of universal public service has been much more clear and straightforward than in broadcasting. The principle of universality has been tied to the operational provision of affordable access (not an issue in broadcasting as long as the main means of transmission was over-the-air, but increasingly so with the addition of various tiers of chargeable services).

The displacement of universal service by subscriber-based and pay-per-view services is the strongest factor favoring a shift toward the consumer model in broadcasting, and proponents of public service broadcasting feel that this needs to be countered by policy measures and institutional mechanisms that are designed to promote the democratic function of broadcasting. This can only come about through a rethinking of what is meant by public service broadcasting.

Traditionally, public service broadcasting has been expected to represent the national as opposed to the foreign. It may be time to refocus these conceptual categories in terms of the local and the global. Global cultural industries recognize this by developing products that are targeted to "niche markets." Public service broadcasting has a different role, which it seeks to fulfill principally by conceiving its audience as a public rather than a market. Some programs may speak to a particular national public, but on any given national territory there will be less-than-national broadcasting needs to be fulfilled. National networks can no longer be expected to be forces of cohesion; they can, however, be highly effective distribution systems for programs that are of importance to the communities they serve. For this to occur, public service broadcasting needs to be redefined in terms that are suitable to a new public culture, global in scope and experienced locally.

Nothing in the idea of public service broadcasting ties it intrinsically to that of nationhood; it is, however, necessarily linked to notions of community. In order to flourish in the future, public service broadcasting will need to be reconceptualized in the context of a changing role for the still-present, still-formidable (for lack of a structure to replace it) nation-state. As the alternative to the state becomes the market, the alternative to national public service broadcasting has been constructed as private sector broadcasting; this parallel is logically flawed as well as politically shortsighted. The globalization of markets is both global and local, in that global products are usually produced in a single place, distributed worldwide, and consumed locally, everywhere. As the nation-state struggles to find its way in this new environment, so does public service broadcasting. It is false to assume, however, that there is no longer a need for public service broadcasting, for this is the only established mainstream medium that can be said to place social and cultural concerns before the imperatives of the marketplace. Furthermore, as public authorities begin looking toward the capacity of national broadcasting systems as a whole to meet public interest goals and objectives, more attention may be paid to the overall ecology of broadcasting as a public service environment.

See also:Culture And Communication; Culture Industries, Media as; Democracy and the Media; Public Broadcasting; Social Change and the Media; Social Goals and the Media; Society and the Media.


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Marc Raboy

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