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.