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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