By successfully inviting the audience to participate, public service broadcasters can negotiate the conflict between professions and popular culture that has always characterized institutions such as the BBC, says Professor Graham Murdock at the Communication Research Centre, Loughborough University.
“A strategy for public service broadcasters on the Internet” was the title of Murdock’s opening lecture at a seminar on that issue at the University of Bergen on April 26–27, 2007.
Central to Murdock’s case for a new digital strategy for public service broadcasters is the concept of the commons. Originally the word described land areas which local people had access to and could use for defined purposes such as hunting and fishing. The concept has evolved, and is today used to describe public institutions such as libraries, museums, education and public service broadcasting, Murdock noted. All these institutions are open to all and free at the point of use.
- Listen to the lecture:[audio:Graham_Murdock.mp3|autostart=no|bgcolor=#eff5f2] (Download a recording of Murdock’s lecture (mp3, 17,3 MB).
- Read the presentation: Download Murdock’s presentation (pdf, 21 KB)
Both public service broadcasting and mass democracy emerged at the same time, in the 1920s. The BBC was given a central role in managing the new mass participation, Murdock noted. An important part of the BBC’s mandate was to supply people with the information they needed to take control of their own lives. At the same time the professions dominating the BBC carried with them a strong skepticism towards popular culture. This conflict grew only more important in the context of the commercial breakthrough of American popular culture. In many countries public service broadcasting was supposed to be the bulwark against this “invasion”. The friction between mass and high culture has been a feature of public broadcasting as an institution until today.
Public service broadcasters are under pressure from many sides, Murdock said. Commercial interests seek to enclose the commons and secure it for themselves. It is claimed that the market can take care of the BBC’s traditional mandate. In the EU there is an ongoing struggle about the future financing of public service. The BBC recently was granted a renewal of its mandate for another ten years, but Murdocks still thought we might be in for a serious debate about licence funding. Many public service broadcasters are forced to look for new revenue supplementing the licence fee, and hence develop two faces, one commercial and one non-commercial.
The concept of the commons is useful because it can help us understand developments on the Internet and how public service broadcasters might position themselves, Murdock believed. He pointed out that there are three different economies connected to the production and consumption of culture:
- Market: Commercial, offered to consumers, based on the price mechanism.
- Public good: Culture offered to citizens, based on taxes.
- Gift economy: Produced and made available for free by and for users/the audience.
Murdock suggested the concept of “communards” to describe those who create works on the Internet and happily give away the results of their effort to others. When enough people join a gift economy project, results such as the web encyclopedia Wikipedia might be achieved.
All three economies exist simultaneously on the Internet. Commercial interests are able to extend the reach of the market, for example by prolonging the time a work is protected by copyright. In this way, the size of the commons is reduced. But at the same time the gift economy is growing rapidly, as shown by the success of Wikipedia and other projects. And for public institutions such as museums, the Internet means that much more of the collections, usually stowed away in basements and archives, kan be made available, Murdock said.
Public service broadcasting was always meant to be like a “museum without walls”, where all public initiatives should get mass distribution. There is a need to rethink this: public broadcasting is no longer about programmes, but about all the resources the public can get access to for free, Murdock argued.
But public service broadcasters must also encourage participation from the audience, he emphasized. Here the BBC has had several initiatives, among them the Creative Archive, where the audience could get access to parts of the BBC’s historical archive and use those clips to make their own works. This way public broadcasters finally can negotiate the relationship between the professions and popular culture.
The result could be a new coalition between broadcasting as a public good and the gift economy that is flourishing on the web. Public service broadcasting can achieve this, but time is short, Murdock concluded.
- Building the Digital Commons: Public Broadcasting in the Age of the Internet: lecture by Murdock from 2004. (pdf)
- Creative Archive Licence Group.
- Stor sjanse, dårlig tid for NRK på nettet: Interview with Murdock in Norwegian.