Global multi-channel market

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Taking the BBC and at least one other foreign public broadcaster as your focus, discuss the challenges faced by public service broadcasters in the global multi-channel market. Introduction Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) is the national public service broadcasting organisation in Ireland with a remit overseeing and operating two television stations, three radio stations, a concert orchestra, a symphony orchestra, and also publishing Irelands best-selling magazine `The RTE Guide`. There are some two thousand people employed by RTE, most of which are based at the Montrose-Donnybrooke site in Dublin.

Historically, broadcasting in Ireland developed through the civil service structures and is therefore seen by some commentators to have evolved towards a certain bureaucratic style of administration. While for a time the only indigenous broadcasting organisation within the state, RTE has always had to compete with the UK and other broadcasting output. More recently, the further development of independent radio and television has led to a slow down in RTE’s advertising revenue, occurring at a time when revenue from the license fee was stabilising (1996-97). Section 1 * Aims and outlines

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, terrestrial broadcasters, in particular those who operate as public service broadcasters, find themselves having to exist within an ever increasing commercially driven market. I hesitate to use the word `market` as it gives rise to issues that, it could be argued, operate outside of the `public interest`. However, the reality is that in order that public service broadcasters are to remain both relevant and pluralistic in their nature, they must, it has been suggested, adopt (and attempts have been made as we shall see) a more market driven structure and ethos.

One of the fundamental issues for those who argue for and against public service broadcasting is the increasingly ambiguous term itself. What is it that constitutes broadcasting that operates in the `public interest` or `public good`, especially when considering the ever-growing fragmentation of society? Also, the privately owned, commercial sector, with its flagship BSkyB, has arguably provided greater choice in broadcasting albeit through subscription, and has diversified into niche areas that were either previously neglected on terrestrial television or were the subject of limited coverage.

This catering for micro-level interests (and indeed the whole range of subjects covered by satellite broadcasters) has meant a significant reduction in terrestrial television viewing. It has also, in a wider sense, given rise to a series of arguments concerning public service broadcasting on the whole, and its reliance on the license fee (particularly the BBC) as a main source of income.

While much of this case study overlaps in areas such as competition (section 3, p7 and funding (section 4, p14) I have split the study into sections in order to maintain both order and coherence. For this study I will look at the main UK public service broadcaster, the BBC and also its Irish counterpart RTE. Both are required to provide a public service through their broadcasting. However, while the BBC carries no advertising, and therefore is reliant on license fee revenue for much of its funding, RTE has a mixed license fee/advertising income.

I shall investigate the steps being taken by both broadcasters to become more relevant (beyond the rhetoric through which they aim to simply make us believe they are relevant), and also discuss the position of public service broadcasters in an environment where the trend is towards greater commercialisation, deregulation and privatisation. I will begin however, by discussing the notion of public service broadcasting in order that we better understand the core principles, of which we, the public are compulsory bound to fund. Section 2 * What is public service broadcasting? * What distinguishes it from profit-driven media?

Changing perceptions of public service broadcasting Traditionally public service broadcasting has conjured up a set of ideological and often political stereotypes, born in the main from an overall demeanour of middle class, institutionalised beliefs and practises. Post 1946, when television broadcasting resumed, the BBC’s popularity was at its height, largely because of its part in the nations efforts during the Second World War, and there exists today, even for those born many years after the war, a resonance passed down through folk-memories, i. e. Winston Churchill’s instantly recognisable speeches, broadcast by the BBC.

Now, in the 21st century, with this affection in tact, but beginning to wane somewhat, the BBC is having to redefine itself to both the public and politicians. RTE too shares many of the current crisis’ in broadcasting, predictably issues surrounding funding/revenue and it is also having to reassess its position in terms of self perception and audience perception. Any description I give here concerning PSB will be open to criticism, because it has become so ambiguous, therefore I revert to the definition agreed by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (December, 1994).

Central to the nine mission statements provided by the body, was a concern `to support the values underlying the political, legal and social structures of democratic societies, and in particular the respect for human rights, culture and pluralism`. (Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, quoted in Scannell. Date? ). Individual organisations provide their own mission statements, however this definition is a broad one, with which PSB’s attempt to match their broadcasting output.

If we take PSB’s as the embodiment of this definition, we can begin to draw distinctions between the services provided by them, and their `for-profit` counterparts (e. g. BSkyB). Commercially driven broadcasters have tended to produce a range of populist programmes, as they carry no public service remit, and their broadcasting output is largely dependant upon the size of the viewing figures. While this will play a part within any broadcasters programme production decisions to some extent, it is more highly focused upon when compared to PSB’s (see programme schedule, fig. 1,2,3. Section 3).

There exists the argument that if the media market is left to its own devices, from employment through to transmission, the end result will be an homogenous broadcasting system, and as Andrew Graham states `Putting it bluntly, we will be “dumbed down“ `. (Graham. 1999) However, referring back to the old perceptions of public service broadcasting, commercial broadcasters such as BSkyB have, it could be argued, forced the PSB’s to sit up and take notice, to emerge from their insular shells.

There is not so much difference between the two sectors in terms of production, but in the values employed throughout the institutions. They both produce news, sport and entertainment for instance, but arguably the pressure from the heads of privately owned organisations (has an owner ever been so inextricably involved in the agenda set by an organisation such as Rupert Murdoch is? ). Also pressures from the commercial advertising sector have been cited as having such control that programmes are often not made because they conflict with the agenda of the advertisers.

Public service broadcasters are encountering problems in both their identity and their practises, exacberated by increasing competition. However it is the identity, or at least the publics perception of PSB, which arguably holds the greatest rub of all at this moment in time. The BBC has been attempting for some time to shake off the stigma of old ideological and political stereotypes over recent years with, a change of emphasis from almost `nannying` the public where they appeared to believe, as Beveridge (1947) stated, `a sense of mission became a sense of divine right`.

(Beveridge, quoted in Curran and Seaton. 1997: P162), to a more approachable and conversationalist (particularly with reference to news production) style of broadcasting. RTE, while being very much younger than the BBC (and therefore does not carry such a weight of history, both positive and negative), has also made attempts to hold onto its majority share of the viewing audience. It has done this through re-branding and re-launching (RTE re-launched RTE2 as N2 in October 1997), while continuing to supply its public service remit, against the backdrop of spending constraints and increasing competition.

The `nannying` I mentioned previously is particularly important when discussing perceptions and notions of public service broadcasting. The Reithian principle of `informing, educating, and entertaining` is perhaps slightly outdated, despite embodying important social and cultural standards, because, as Bob Collins (1997) states, `there is an implication in it that audiences are in some way passive recipients of what is directed at them, with no ability to respond or adopt a more active posture`.

(Collins, quoted in Kiberd, 1997: p23). It could be argued that in the current multi-channel, indeed, multi-ethnic environment, the idea that you can provide a sufficient remit of programmes to a wide-ranging audience is optimistic at best. This may be of no fault of the broadcasters, but could be attributed to a change in the viewers’ appetites and opinions. Section 3 * Competition What twenty-first century television viewers have at their potential disposal, compared with even ten years ago is choice.

An overwhelming montage of channels all fighting for the audiences attention, and putting questions over the quality of that choice aside for a moment, we can see that the monopolistic environment once enjoyed by public service broadcasters has been removed altogether. Because of this exponential increase in choice, audiences tend to see the PSB’s as less important to their television viewing. This may be due in part to the amount of channels available, which in turn become indistinguishable from one another, or because people prefer to watch back-to-back populist programming (see Sky One – 14th Dec, fig. 1).

Others would argue that public service broadcasting serves, to this day, as a `public good that has unobtrusively contributed to the democratisation of everyday life`. (Scannell, 1989: p136), and therefore should be preserved at all costs, and that there is no substitute for programming with the express interest of serving the public rather than broadcasting on a for-profit basis. Below I have taken a snapshot of a typical evenings viewing for Sky One, BBC One and RTE1. The table provides the schedule from 5:00pm until the last slot before midnight.

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