It is no exaggeration to say that the concept of public service broadcasting is in great danger. As audiences fragment, the justification for a universal license fee becomes harder to defend. As broadcasting ignores national frontiers, the relevance of national systems becomes open to question. As global communication on the internet threatens to overtake sex as a past time, the very future of ‘mass media’ and of the profession of journalism may also be perceived to be in jeopardy.
- The sense of fright expressed by Watson (1998) is shared by Suich (1997) who earlier talked of a world-wide crisis in public service broadcasting (PSB). He identifies the key aspects of the crisis as a decline in audiences in the face of growing commercial competition leading to weaker public support for PSB and its financing from state subsidies and/or license fees together with a change in PSB itself away from its old didactic high culture and social improvement model.
- When the influential Commission on the Freedom of the Press in the US submitted its report after the Second World War, it not only reaffirmed the principle of freedom of the press but added to it the notion of social responsibility which the press was called upon to accept in recognition of its essential role in the political and social life of the nation. (Blanchard, 1977).
- The Commission recommended that the press should be common carriers of public expressions and should give a representative picture of constituent groups in society and also present and clarify the goals and values of society (McQuail, 1994). All these ideals are embodied by PSBs and the particular issue of giving a ‘representative picture’ of constituent groups in society has arguably been the principal challenge to PSBs posed by the emergence of multicultural audiences.
- Generally, the principle that historically governed the regulation of broadcasting was national public interest with television and radio considered to be two important tools in strengthening national unity. This national thinking conceives a cultural map in which cultures are homogeneous and it does not tackle diversity (Robins, 2006).
In line with this concept, the BBC argued, in its 1996 publication Extending Choice in the Digital Age, that commercially driven expansion of broadcasting will have mixed effects on consumer choice and that to counter the incentives of purely commercial funding, license fee funding will allow the BBC to provide the accurate and balanced news and current affairs programmes which are key building blocks of modern citizenship and ‘to give all homes access to the best of British culture and entertainment’ (quoted in Jakubowicz (1999: 49) emphasis added).
According to Raboy (2003) PSB has been traditionally expected to represent the national as opposed to the foreign. The original public service model of broadcasting was one in which ‘all the citizens of a nation can talk to each other like a family sitting around and chatting around a domestic hearth’ (Keane, 1991:164).
The BBC for example, grew to become a national institution, a focus of national interest and concern in a manner very different from almost all other broadcasting institutions in other countries. It is thought of in terms usually reserved for venerable institutions of British society like Parliament, the law courts, the Colleges of Cambridge and Oxford. It is central to the national culture (Kumar, 1977).
Radically different audiences
Things are however changing. In an era of globalization marked by technological developments and relatively faster movement and settling of people across borders, the composition of audiences within national territories served by PSBs is changing. Societies all over the world increasingly tend to include a variety of migrant and mobile populations for whom the public spheres of the host nation in which they geographically reside are far from being the only source of interpretations and identifications (Morley, 2000). The situation is worst in nations whose recent history has been marked by substantial immigration as witnessed in some EU member countries.
In these countries, PSBs now more than ever before have a key responsibility to a public composed of so many individuals with broad similarities and wide ranging differences. They are supposed to provide services that celebrate social diversity but also facilitate social cohesion. Minorities are as important as majorities in determining the overall quality of shared social life (Wessberg, 2004). In Australia, the national broadcasting organization has been called upon to help maintain some semblance of social cohesion in a nation of immigrants (Gandy, 2000).
- Contrary to the BBC’s own document quoted above, faced with the harsh reality of an increasing multicultural audience, the BBC is now trying to hold the ‘middle ground’ on a terrain that is treacherous and unstable. It cannot afford identification with any organized section of the community however large. It now has to:
- ‘fight for its audience…This meant that the BBC could no longer speak to the one great national audience in the same firm and rather aloof manner that it had adopted for so long…It felt it was now addressing an audience that was itself sectionalized, fragmented, making contradictory demands and less willing to be submissive if these demands were not satisfied’ (Kumar, 1977:245-246).
Worse, as Williams (1979) noted, with multicultural audiences, it is not always easy to say with required precision what in effect constitutes ‘public interest.’ In this context, a key aspect of the ‘public service’ ideal, that of ‘providing for all tastes and interests’ (Peacock, 1986), is called into question and exclusion easily perceptible.
Cottle (1998) describes the responsibility of the BBC towards Britain’s ethnic minorities as primarily being one of enhancing their representation through ‘multicultural programming’. However, attempts by broadcasters to produce materials in forms fitted to the circumstances of their audience’s lives and concerns (Scannell, 1989) have instead led to a boomerang effect within a multicultural audience because, as Husband and Chouhan (1985) argue, generally, when racial and ethnic minority audiences are framed as publics, they can readily be seen as being undeserved by mainstream media.
Similarly, Morley (2000) notes that to the very extent that a programme signals to members of some groups that it is designed for them and functions as an invitation to their participation in social life, it will necessarily signal to members of other groups that it is not for them and indeed that they are not among the invitees to its particular form of sociability. Morley adds that only a programme constructed within the terms of some form of cultural Esperanto could hope to appeal equally to all without favor or division. This, as we know, is not possible in the present context of extensive multicultural audiences.
‘Special needs’ broadcasting
When Channel Four was established in the early 1980s in Britain, multiculturalism was enshrined within its brief. The idea was that broadcasting should better reflect the pluralism of British culture so as to serve the ‘special needs’ of minority groups’ (Morley, 2000). However, as Clive Jones of Carlton Communication observed, honorable exceptions not withstanding, in Britain ‘television is still White Anglo-Saxon, Britain is not’ (Gibson, 1999). Sreberny (1999: 27) corroborated that ‘if you flick through the national channels (in Britain) for ten minutes, everything is White, White, White.’ She concluded that TV is still lagging behind current social developments by failing to reflect the multicultural nature of UK.
Commenting on the case of Netherlands, Ang (1991) also points out that PSB has been inadequately representative of society as a whole at a time of rapid social change.
The problem with representation of minorities on national media, as Gandy (2000) explained, has been that for the most part, when whites identify minority audience segments either for commerce or for public service, there is a tendency to be guided more by convenience than by consideration of the identities actually held by members of target populations.
Also, because the limited budgets of PSBs such as the BBC have to be distributed among the major minority communities, the decision to ‘serve’ Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians from East Africa by means of a single programme like Asian Magazine seems perfectly reasonable to White programme managers. The fact that this ethnic construction is rejected as unacceptable by the members of these ethnic communities is taken as a further evidence of their unreasonable demands and insatiable appetite for special treatment (Husband and Chouhan, 1985).
The reaction from these ‘minorities’ to the above has been practical. The migrant Asian community in the UK, which Gillespie studied in the mid 1980s, felt ill-served by the broadcast media and for that reason, had a particular interest in video, cable and satellite media (Gillespie, 1995). According to Robins (2003) satellite broadcasting now connects Turkish immigrants across Europe to everyday life in Turkey on a routine and real-time basis.
Similarly, according to a survey of British TV viewers conducted by the Independent Television Commission in 1994, Asian and Afro-Caribbean households were more likely than British viewers in general to subscribe to satellite or cable TV stations. The report also concluded that members of ethnic minorities were considerably less satisfied than the general population with the programme services provided on terrestrial television (Cumberbatch and Woods, 1994).
These immigrants often improvise forms of flexible citizenship, deteritorialized in relation to any one particular country but highly localized in relation to the places (often different countries) where the members of their family network live (Ong, 1993). A question that this situation has raised is whether audiences share more with others across the globe than with their next door neighbor (Livingstone, 2005). In these contexts, the public service ideal of creating a ‘national sense of belonging and fostering of a communal sentiment among audiences’ is strained.
Is a greater presence of minorities (of all types) in the (singular) public sphere (national media) a sufficient remedy to the existing difficulties or are we better advised (Kundani, 2000) to consider the various ways in which (and the sites on which) a variety of alternative, independent or oppositional public spheres might be created in a genuinely multicultural society? A key development in this direction, as witnessed in Australia, has been the creation of specific media organs for ethnic minorities (Jakubowicz, 1989).
Generally, in the context of globalization characterized by new technologies and shifting terrains of audience demographics, loyalties and behavior patterns (Raboy, 2003), there is a need, more than ever before, for media policies that are sensitive to the new cultural diversity in most countries. This also requires PSBs to distance themselves from the national imagination (Robins, 2006).
Unarguably, certain key ideals of the ‘public service’ role of the media are being challenged as a result of the multicultural audiences they are bound to address in an era of relatively rapid movement and settling of people in countries other than their countries of origin.
Given that the media in most places are still (despite globalizing tendencies) in many respects based on nationally generated content and where such material is available, majority audiences often prefer it to imported products (Morley, 2000), the challenge remains for the national media to reflect diversity in society through representative programming.
As Kundani (1995:19) observes, if we understand the media as layers of public space that extend and connect with geographical space, then the demands for better, fuller and more varied representation of ethnic minorities on respective national media, have to be seen as continuous with the parallel demands for less discriminatory policing of public and private space. Only through perspectives based on premises such as these that we shall perhaps also be best able to arrive at an adequate analysis of the media’s role in contemporary public spheres. Minorities and migrant groups cannot be satisfactorily treated as marginal exceptions to a simple form of sedentarism (Morley, 2000).
And this challenge, great as it may seem, can only be effectively met by PSBs. They remain an important reminder of the social and cultural responsibility of the media in an age when the dominant thrust is overwhelmingly oriented towards consumerism. In situating the future of the very idea of public service media in a global context, it is imperative to note that PSBs are the last best hope for socially purposeful media action in the public interest (Raboy, 2003).
PSBs have had a noble past. With the opportunities/challenges faced in the context of a globalizing world, the question, as Jakubowicz (2006) asked, is whether they are on the verge of commencing an interesting future. Or is it the end of the road?
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Teke Ngomba is holds a BSc (Hons) degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Buea in Cameroon. Immediately after graduation in 2004, he went to South Africa and successfully completed a Media Training course emphasizing a critical analysis of Africa’s development organized by the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, South Africa. After returning to Cameroon he was employed as an Administrative Assistant in the Public and Alumni Relations Office of the University of Buea from April 2005 to August 2006 befiore winning a European Commission Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to study for a Masters Degree in ‘Journalism and Media within Globalization: The European Perspective’ at Aarhus University, Denmark, the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands and the University of Hamburg, Germany.