Aunty's angels

Made Possible By... - The Decline and Fall of Public Service Broadcasting

April 10, 1998

Public service broadcasting'' is one of those loosely worded phrases that slip into the language almost unnoticed, without any clear definition being attached to them. They usually win acceptance, despite the risk of misunderstandings, and ultimately find a comfortable niche in everyday communications. The fact that they may mean different things to different people does not seem to inhibit their use or diminish their value. Anyone wishing to create a broad impression rather than convey precise information will find them particularly helpful. In any radio or television franchise application worth its salt, for example, the key role of PSB in maintaining broadcasting standards will be respectfully acknowledged and endorsed. Against this background of compliance, hopes of getting a licence may well be improved - and can certainly not be harmed. Neither applicants nor interviewing panel will feel the need to spend too much time establishing exactly what PSB stands for. Everyone is supposed to know that already.

Most people take the existence of PSB for granted, even if their understanding of its purpose is blurred at the edges. Since it sounds well intentioned and carries a sort of halo effect of responsible citizenship, they see no reason not to support it. But to give an informed opinion, they need the answers to some basic questions: What purpose does PSB actually serve? Who owns it? Is it just an idea or something associated with a particular set of studios? Is it exclusive to the BBC or is ITV involved as well? Does the government give it financial backing to provide such things as schools' programmes, advice on road safety and coverage of Parliament? Can it be blamed for party political broadcasts? Come to that, does it exist in Britain at all, or is it just an American device for escaping from the non-stop bombardment of screen advertising that United States citizens have to endure?

The answers to these and many other questions - perhaps more than the non-specialist viewer and listener will be eager to take on board - are to be found in two books on PSB, representing viewpoints from both sides of the Atlantic. One is by a British academic, Michael Tracey, who formerly headed the Broadcasting Research Unit in the United Kingdom and now holds university posts both here and in the US; the other is by a US writer, James Ledbetter, a staff member of New York's Village Voice magazine and a specialist in media affairs.

Anyone hoping to find a neatly packaged definition of public broadcasting taking up only a few lines will be disappointed. These are works for those who share the view, clearly held by the authors, that broadcasting has a natural place somewhere near the centre of the universe and deserves correspondingly detailed attention. The by-ways as well as the mainstreams of broadcasting philosophy, today and yesterday, are exhaustively explored. Much of it is interesting.

In a way, Ledbetter, concentrating on the US, has the more complex task, since he has not only to deal with a large and widespread population but cover the myriad twists and turns of political manoeuvring behind the scenes. Similar pressures exist in the UK, but are not applied with the same visceral intensity. Ledbetter works in a national environment where the role of PSB, for all its shortcomings, is understood as a distinct feature of the broadcasting world and is a physical part of the system. We do not have specifically designated PSB channels in the UK; the US has masses of them. The paradox is that British broadcasters would doubtless - and with some justice - claim to be closer to the spirit of public broadcasting in their total programming output than their US colleagues. Certainly the BBC is sensitive to any suggestion that it may be trying to ease its financial problems by dabbling in commerce or drifting from the provisions of its Royal Charter. The need for vigilance in defending the licence fee and preserving the corporation's sense of mission has been the theme of successive director-generals over the years. One of the most outspoken of these, Hugh Greene, warned in particular of the dangers of taking advertising - the greater the success of such a move, he said, the bigger the menace would be "and gradually, but in the end totally, we would be reduced to the level of ITV".

Under the twin pressures of inflation and an ever-widening range of commitments, however, the BBC seems to be running short of space under the "public service" umbrella. Christopher Bland, the chairman of governors, is just now having to defend a programme involving the lottery and scratch cards which, according to some, will have Lord Reith revolving in his grave. Tracey's book draws attention to other areas of potential conflict.

To the British broadcasters, PSB represents a set of standards to be aspired to and, it is hoped, practised across the full range of programming. In the US, public broadcasting is a clearly identifiable sector of broadcasting, a variegated group of enterprises with their own funding arrangements and management structures. It was brought into being in recognition of the need to add something different and thought provoking to the all-too-familiar ratings-dominated fare offered by the big networks - the territory once described by a politician as "the vast wasteland".

Tracey's and Ledbetter's researches throw into high relief the differences between the structure of broadcasting in the US and the UK. Both books focus on the vital role of funding in determining the shape and progress of broadcasting as a whole and PSB in particular. The Americans opted from the start for advertising as the main source of revenue for national broadcasting, and in doing so initiated the permanent battle between the network companies for a fair share of the market and as much more as they could lay their hands on.

The scene in the UK has some similarities. The ITV companies tussle over market share. But the battle takes place in what is on the whole a gentler arena - largely thanks to the licence-fee system of financing the BBC. This has enabled the corporation to pay its way in gentlemanly (or lady-like) fashion, and, more importantly, to focus during its formative years on developing quality programming without the distraction of fundraising. That is an opportunity that US broadcasting never had.

British broadcasting is not short of imperfections, and the two authors are far from being apologists for it. But some of the sharpest words are reserved for the American scene. The current state of PSB in the US is not easy to assess, even with the help of many pages of statistics. There are some apparent contradictions and confusions. Tracey, who draws on a deep understanding of broadcasting internationally, records that public broadcasting is available in more US homes than any other single network. Yet, as he points out, it only gets about 2 per cent of all viewing - a result that he attributes to a combination of "dysfunctionality in organisation", "fiscal recklessness" and "conceptual confusion". A comprehensive indictment.

Poll figures, as always, are on hand to add their own measure of confusion. According to one such poll, 86 per cent of Americans agreed that PSB provided an important alternative to network television and ranked it with public radio as third and fourth best value for tax dollars after military defence and law enforcement. The public have also shown themselves willing to put their hands in their pockets, in contrast to the meagre federal contribution of $1 a year per citizen ($40 in the UK, $31 in Canada and $30 in Japan). The number of individual subscribers to PSB doubled between 1980 and 1993 and now stands at more than five million. At the same time, contributions to public radio more than tripled. Collectively, these contributions amount to nearly $400 million annually.

The trouble is that the closer PSB gets to the level of funding it needs to operate effectively, the more vulnerable it becomes to lobbying pressures from its most powerful supporters and to the critical suspicions of politicians. These discontents are frequently wrapped up in complaints that PSB is drifting from its original noble objectives and losing its vital independence. Ledbetter says the reason he has focused his book on the interplay between US politics and the public broadcasting world is his "belief that pressures from Congress, the White House and a few special interest groups play a much greater role in shaping and determining the public broadcasting schedule than is generally recognised".

Even US presidents, it seems, find the temptation to breathe heavily on PSB difficult to resist. Richard Nixon's White House was "obsessed with television", not least because of the widespread belief that a television debate cost him the 1960 presidential election against John Kennedy. "Starting with Nixon's first year in office, the administration's goal was to eliminate, manipulate or isolate elements within public broadcasting that it perceived as liberal or - a favourite in-phrase - 'anti-administration','' says Ledbetter. The radicalism that permeated both the vision and the practice of public television in its early days has long since withered.

Taking the financial difficulties and other factors into account, both Tracey and Ledbetter conclude that PSB is in deep trouble - not only on the sick list but in a state of terminal decline. A particularly ominous note in Tracey's book describes PSB as "a corpse on leave" - a phrase once applied to Weimar. Ledbetter sounds a warning at the American end. "There must,'' he writes, "be a full, honest and informed debate about the mission of public broadcasting before there can be any meaningful discussion about whether or how it can be saved. The discussion has to begin with a reassertion of fundamentals."

But what are the fundamentals? The precise definition of PSB still remains elusive. Tracey commends a note on the subject written by Ian Jacob, a well-respected BBC director-general of earlier years. Public service broadcasting, he said, is "a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service that cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that Parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlines the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political or commercial consideration."

For good measure, Tracey lists eight principles drawn up by himself and some colleagues that underlie the public service idea. They include: universality of availability and appeal; provision for minorities; serving the public; commitment to education; distancing from vested interests; encouragement of good programming rather than competition for numbers; and rules of broadcasting to liberate rather than restrict the programme-maker.

That may sound like a prescription for a perfect world in which radio and television services are run by angels, rather than a down-to-earth formula for coping with the urgent pressures of day-to-day broadcasting. But it does drive home the fact that, for its practitioners, PSB is a way of life and a philosophical standpoint rather than just a means of earning a living.

Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Made Possible By...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States

Author - James Ledbetter
ISBN - 1 85984 904 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £25.00
Pages - 280

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