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Thursday, 4 July 2013

PUBLIC BROADCASTERS - WHAT ARE THEY GOOD FOR?

After a couple of days of reflection and a little shisha and tea with @dimmu, after which he wrote this, I am returning to the matter of public broadcasters, though not the Greek case in particular. I've been thinking about what the new public broadcaster should look like, while predictably the Government and ERT's supporters are thinking mostly about other things.

A question of quality 

Public proadcasters, the statist argument goes, are the only ones capable of producing ‘quality’ television (whatever that is), because they are not driven by the need to attract advertising revenue or to support the media owners’ business or political ambitions elsewhere. To do either of these things, private broadcasters need a mass audience, and in order to get one quickly and/or on the cheap they must pander to the lowest common denominator and produce crap.

I say ‘whatever that is’ of ‘quality’ television because, while one can easily point to regrettable programming in private television, there is hardly any reliable means of selecting for ‘quality’ apart from accepting the top-down recommendation of a revered expert. Today's ERT defenders did not watch most of the 'high quality' programming they regret losing now, and seem very reluctant to pay even to keep the broadcast live via alternative means.

A great example of this discussion is the viral footage of tearful ERT symphonic orchestra staff, reproduced at nauseam in defence of the ailing broadcaster. Why exactly does ERT have a symphonic orchestra? Because it needs to reproduce (not produce, mind you!) a style of music decreed as ‘high quality’, a style that ERT’s new-fangled advocates would probably have denounced as imposed by elites if their ideology weren't primarily about Government handing out jobs and money. The ERT orchestra was created, after all, (for radio only back then) in 1938, under dictator I. Metaxas. 

From public broadcaster to public audience

The question of why so few people watched ERT to begin with is significant, especially if we're expected to support it as a bastion of ‘quality’ (it is, after all, supposedly the Greek BBC - LOL). I expect that champions of public broadcasting would not interpret low ERT viewership rates as a sign that most TV viewers are incapable of ever enjoying ‘quality’ television. Presumably, audiences in Greece would want good television if only they were given the option, or if only they had been taught to want it.

More to the point, champions of public broadcasting are likely to believe that the role of public broadcasting is precisely to broaden people’s minds so that they can demand better of their own lives, and of those in power. In this sense, the public broadcaster’s job is to produce not news, or TV shows, but the audience itself. This refined audience, they would argue, is the true public good.  As with other public goods, private sector broadcasters and other entrepreneurs can, once it is there, leverage this refined audience for other purposes.

This approach that considers the audience to be the product of broadcasters is not my innovation. It is, in fact, a Marxist concept posited by D.W. Smythe back in 1977 (I can’t find that paper, but see a more recent paper by Smythe here). It is also reviewed most recently in Bermejo (2009) and in Fuchs (2012). While the Marxist critique relates to the manufacture of audiences in capitalism, I think it’s equally successful at explaining the way a public broadcaster is expected to work. But I am taking liberties with the theory, so please keep that in mind.

In the strict definition of the term, access to a public good has to be nonexclusive and its consumption needs to be non-rivalrous. A refined audience is definitely non-exclusive to other economic agents (broadcasters can’t force you to do nothing but watch their content), and only utilisation of its TV viewing time is rivalrous. A refined audience who like to watch informative news and well-producted content but have nothing else in common with each other would not be a public good. If however the ‘refinement’ of the audience is universal (i.e it is a kind of education transmitting values or creating meaning, and elevates the way they interact with everything else in daily life) then that makes it a true public good. In that case, public broadcasting really is either about education or about political propaganda, and yet none of its defenders ever seem to ask for it to be subsumed into either.

Venture Capitalists of the Mind

An alternative (bourgeois?) way of approaching the matter would be to say that the public broadcaster is trying to fulfil the role of the missing venture capitalist of the television world – an economic agent that creates markets for new types of broadcasting (not just new content but also new media) by taking risky bets in areas where demand is unproven - it has what is known as a 'demonstration effect.' Like venture capitalists, such public broadcasters would find that most of their innovations do not break even; but they would tolerate losing small amounts relatively often in order to win big a few times, when they create the Next Big Thing - think BBC's iPlayer, or, come to that, The Office. As with all things Venture Capital, there is likely to be an equity gap in the financing of innovative content and new media, and an argument for the state to step in.

Wildlife documentaries (a classic example of 'quality' television) are a good illustration of this point. No one could know for sure in the early days of television whether the wider population would be interested in watching footage of animals in the wild, even though it's obvious to us now. What they did know for sure was that flying a heavily equipped camera crew to the Okavango Delta for two months is very expensive, and a return on this investment was far from assured. Pioneers of this type of programming had to create an audience above all else. That's evident in the way the Brits revere pioneers of such programming such as Sir David Attenborough. Similar, if less universally accepted, cult personalities spring up whenever an audience has been created from scratch - from cooking to sports, even politics.

iPlayer is a potentially even better, but currently problematic example - the BBC revolutionised catch-up television but has no means within its current charter of monetising it. It's created a loophole that allows me to never pay a TV licence and yet still enjoy some of the best content in the world, delivered in a truly innovative way. But amending the Charter doesn't answer the basic question: how would one fund such a model of public broadcaster-led venture capitalism?
  • A purely state-run broadcaster can use taxpayers' money, confident that the value of an enlightened audience (a public good, remember?) would increase tax revenue over time. 
  • A purely commercial broadcaster would need to be able to attract investors and (crucially) to capture the revenue from a big win after they produce a groundbreaking production - they will need to be able to establish intellectual property rights on innovations (presumably they already do for the actual content), as well as entering into licencing agreements with other commercial organisations that want to use their technologies and content, and even churning out spin-off content where possible (DVDs, books, Making Of documentaries, spin-off series, whatever). 
  • In a civil-society funded model, the broadcaster could seek donations in return for public acknowledgment and great inclusion in its decisions, and hope to produce enough winners (including technologies that people come to rely on) on a regular basis to continue to draw these in.
The BBC is currently engaged in this discussion. ERT never has been - all of the activism is lavished on how many employees it ought to have, and whether the first-degree relatives of employees laid off in 2013 should be hired as well.

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