Participation and web central to next generation public service broadcasting

Online presence and audience participation will play an important part when public service broadcasters redefine themselves. Vox Publica documents a European media research seminar.

The future of pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing in a rad­i­cal­ly chang­ing tech­no­log­i­cal and reg­u­la­to­ry envi­ron­ment was the issue addressed at a sem­i­nar held at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007. Media researchers from sev­er­al Euro­pean coun­tries attended.

In coop­er­a­tion with the orga­niz­ers – the research group for media‑, ICT- and cul­tur­al pol­i­cy at the Depart­ment of Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and Media Stud­ies, Uni­ver­si­ty of Bergen. Vox Pub­li­ca doc­u­ments the sem­i­nar on these web pages. The doc­u­men­ta­tion con­tains text sum­maries of each lec­ture, sup­ple­ment­ed in most cas­es by audio record­ings and slide shows for down­load­ing. Links to addi­tion­al online resources are includ­ed as well.

The lec­tures speak for them­selves, but a few pre­lim­i­nary con­clu­sions can still be sug­gest­ed from the talks. None of the researchers fun­da­men­tal­ly ques­tioned that pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing has a role to play in today’s media soci­ety. A direct threat to its exis­tence does not seem to be on the researchers’ radar. But most or even all of them con­ced­ed with vary­ing enthu­si­asm that the broad­cast­ers must rede­fine them­selves in face of the changed media land­scape brought about by the web and the emer­gence of the active user.

Mobilizing the audience

Hence, par­tic­i­pa­tion was a cen­tral top­ic touched on by sev­er­al of the researchers, from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. Gra­ham Mur­dock placed the mobi­liza­tion of the audi­ence as active par­tic­i­pants at the heart of his pro­pos­al for a com­mons-based strat­e­gy for pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers. Bri­an McNair dis­cussed Tony Blair’s cen­tral role in shap­ing par­tic­i­pa­to­ry for­mats in British broad­cast­ing – espe­cial­ly on the com­mer­cial pub­lice ser­vice broad­cast­er ITV. Fur­ther, Georgina Born report­ed from recent research into the BBC’s expe­ri­ences with sub­stan­tial audi­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion. And Espen Ytre­berg sup­ple­ment­ed the dis­cus­sion with results from a Nor­we­gian research project about the media industry’s – includ­ing pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ers’ – strate­gic use of the new par­tic­i­pat­ing audiences.

This seems to be a cen­tral point: Can increased user par­tic­i­pa­tion strength­en the legit­i­ma­cy of pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing, or are users just being instru­men­tal­ized by media groups engaged in tough com­pe­ti­tion? The ques­tion caused some dis­cus­sion at the sem­i­nar, and Bri­an McNair remarked that both answers are pos­si­ble – increased user par­tic­i­pa­tion can be good for media as com­pa­nies and good for democ­ra­cy at the same time.

A new media policy

As the broad­cast­ers expand onto new media plat­forms to test such par­tic­i­pa­to­ry forms, they face some tech­ni­cal and reg­u­la­to­ry prob­lems: those relat­ed to net neu­tral­i­ty may be of the most per­ti­nent. Tan­ja Stor­sul’s intro­duc­tion laid out the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, and showed the dilem­mas for both broad­cast­ing insti­tu­tions and reg­u­la­tors. The fol­low­ing dis­cus­sion cen­tred on the poten­tial for polit­i­cal inter­ven­tion: how much pow­er does nation­al cul­tur­al pol­i­cy have on this issue? And where to start to work towards a rea­son­able compromise?

Anoth­er press­ing issue is the grow­ing impor­tance of the Euro­pean pol­i­cy lev­el. As the pow­er of the EU increas­es, oth­er insti­tu­tions deemed nec­es­sary for a well-func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy lag behind: as Bar­bara Thomass under­lined, the promise of Euro­pean pub­lic spheres may seem bleak. In her talk, Thomass out­lined a sug­ges­tion for think­ing about the exist­ing pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing instu­tions as tools to improve this demo­c­ra­t­ic deficit. From the same start­ing point, Jack­ie Har­ri­son laid out a ratio­nale for Europe-wide pub­lic ser­vice com­mu­ni­ca­tions ground­ed in the EU’s social pur­pose. Though explic­it­ly nor­ma­tive in form, such sug­ges­tions serve to envi­sion alter­na­tive ways for­ward for pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing policy.

We hope that this doc­u­men­ta­tion will be a con­struc­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the ongo­ing debate about the future of Euro­pean pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing. Indeed, the debate may con­tin­ue here – we encour­age com­ments and live­ly debate on this and all the oth­er articles.



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