As we approach the end of our module the issue of private versus public broadcasting becomes our focus of attention. In particular we will be looking at potential economic and ideological determining factors when it comes to broadcasting in public and private media institutions.
This issue is very topical in today’s news as Independent News and Media (INM) has reached agreement with a consortium of banks who are willing to write off €138m of debt in a deal that will see them gaining an equity stake in the company of between 11% and 16% in a rights issue before the end of the year. Given the prominent role of INM’s controlling shareholder, Denis O’Brien, in this and other media companies in Ireland, and the contentious role of banks in our recent and current financial difficulties as a state, there are likely to be questions asked about how the media in Ireland will fulfill its role of reporting on banking in Ireland.
Cases such as this one bring to our attention the possible influence of media owners on the nature and content of what is being broadcast and raises questions about whether that content serves the ideological, personal or corporate interests of these owners. Hegemonic theorists in particular will see audiences buying into a cultural paradigm that reflects the interests of powerful capitalist entities who have large equity stakes in media companies. Liberal pluralist theorists will be more inclined to focus on audience autonomy as a primary determining factor as investors in media companies chase a profitable return on their investment rather than pursuing an agenda of controlling media content for their own manipulative ends.
In televisual broadcasting in Ireland RTE as a public service broadcaster is to some degree in competition with TV3 as a private broadcaster. Unlike the BBC in Britain, that is not expected to raise revenue through advertising, RTE must supplement its license fee income with an advertising revenue stream. In this way it competes with TV3 not just on the basis of audience numbers but also commercially for income from advertisers, who have a choice of who to advertise with. So RTE are expected to provide coverage of events under their public service broadcasting remit that might not be commercially successful, and for this they receive license fee income, but they also must operate on a commercially successful basis in competition with TV3 through advertising revenue. TV3 might point to license fee revenue as an unfair advantage that RTE has but the latter would probably counter that this revenue is at its disposal to allow it to fulfill its public service obligations.
These obligations are typical of public service broadcasters throughout the Western world and were summed up by BBC Director General John Reith when the British state broadcaster was launched: to ‘Educate, Inform and Entertain’. American public service broadcaster PBS also adopted this mission statement. In contrast, private broadcasters are primarily concerned with making a profit, although they must do so within the constraints of broadcasting legislation and guidelines, which may include codes of conduct regarding language and violence or, in the case of TV3 here in Ireland, a requirement to broadcast at least 30% of indigenously-produced material.
Since the mid-to-late 1990s more and more private commercial television stations have been granted licenses throughout Europe. Here and in Britain TV3 (1998), Channel 5 – Uk (1997), Film 4 (1998) and E4 – UK (2001) are among those that have come on air and are competing with public service broadcasters. This has raised concerns about the viability of public service broadcasting as more and more stations compete for audience numbers and advertising revenue. The lucrative nature of advertising can be gauged from the £5.80 per thousand viewers ITV charges for a 30 second commercial during an episode of Coronation Street, amounting to £59,044 when their 10.18 million viewers per episode are taken into account. Each episode of the soap costs £50,000-£60,000 to make and, with several 30 second advertisements per episode, one can see how profitable television advertising can be.
There are a number of concerns surrounding the growth in private television broadcasting and how it might impact upon public service broadcasting and society in general. Firstly, there is a loss of informational television, with a greater emphasis upon entertainment rather than news, current affairs and factual programming. Secondly, there is a threat to the local economy as more content is sourced from outside the area where broadcasters are situated. Some would also claim that there is a decrease in quality of programming, although there is an element of subjectivity involved in defining what constitutes quality and public service productions are not necessarily of a higher quality than private ones. Another concern is that public service broadcasting loses funding as it has to compete with private broadcasters for advertising revenue.
Christina Holtz-Bacha and Pippa Norris, in a 2001 report focused on EU states entitled “To Entertain, Inform, and Educate”: Still the Role of Public Television, argued that “in most countries preference for public television goes hand-in- hand with greater knowledge of EU political matters”. They also assume differences between private and public sectors regarding the nature of news broadcasts, with the private sector tending more towards ‘infotainment’. They do, however, point out that there has been little systematic statistical evidence to back up this assumption. They also consider whether people are supplementing their television watching time with commercial television, rather than watching less public television, and speculate that if this is the case the democratic implications of increased commercialisation may not be so much a cause for concern.
So there is a question mark over whether there is a great difference between public and private sector broadcasting, particularly in the EU where government regulations appear to be stronger than in the United States. There appears to be no going back to the days before the 1980s, when commercial broadcasting began to compete with public broadcasters. It is more likely to be in the hands of legislators and regulators to ensure that a mixed private/public broadcasting model serves the interests of democracy.