Public service and the Internet: a strategy

A public service broadcaster that can mobilize audience as participants and remake itself as a portal for public cultural institutions, will deliver a convincing argument for its continued existence, says Graham Murdock.

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.

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.

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