What do you understand by the term Public Service Broadcasting, and what future do you feel it has within the rapidly changing world of British broadcasting? Public Service Broadcasting has greatly influenced the development of British Television. It is extremely difficult however, to give a clear definition of the concept as it has been perceived in many different ways both criticized and praised. The term has also undergone some significant changes since it’s original relation to the development of the BBC.
Many theorists have recognised the difficulty and problems with regards to definition and interpretation of public service broadcasting, Paddy Scannell (1990) argues that we must essentially distinguish between “public service as a responsibility delegated to broadcasting authorities by the state, and the manner in which the broadcasting authorities have interpreted that responsibility and tried to discharge it.”
Public service broadcasting, as mentioned before, is portrayed and interpreted in many different ways and due to the development of British television and radio, it’s meaning has altered over time. Before we can consider the future of public service broadcasting in British broadcasting, it must be understood how the concept was initially used and how both public service broadcasting and broadcasting in general has changed.
British broadcasting has developed in a particular way, the government being a fundamental factor throughout, making many of the vital decisions and regulations. Unlike broadcasting in the USA, that of Britain was not profit based but saw the opportunity to inform, educate and influence the public. The government felt that this potential was too important to give to private ownership so it remained in state control. The Sykes committee of 1923 saw the vital influence broadcasting held and decided that, “control of such potential power over public opinion and the life of the nation ought to remain with the State (quoted in Scannell 1990 – page 13). The issue of a licence however prevented direct control as this held the broadcasters responsible for their actions.
Broadcasting in Britain was seen as a public utility, operating for the ‘public good’ but as many theorists argue, who exactly defines the good of the public? Broadcasters often viewed the public as a mass, not considering any diversity or individuality, thus denying identity within the public. The State’s claim that broadcasting was completely concerned with the operation for public good has since been criticised by many theorists. Kevin Robbins and Frank Webster (1990) argued that there was a distinct controlling influence involved and that broadcasting was being used as part of a range of controlling elements in society that regulated people’s lives.
Many believed that broadcasting had certain roles to play, including moral and social, within society. This interpretation aided the concept of Broadcasting being a service for the public and it was seen as an opportunity to improve humanity. As the control was harnessed and in the hands of one governing body, many people have argued this conception to be false and that broadcasting only operated with regard to certain interests, not reflecting or taking into account the diversity of society.
The organisation of broadcasting in Britain has been very closely linked with the initial concept of public service broadcasting. Colin Seymour-Ure (1996) based his study on the way in which British broadcasting was organised and the six elements derived from the original concept of public service broadcasting. The BBC was clearly influenced by the structure within public service broadcasting although some elements have changed. It was thought that British broadcasting should remain a monopoly, operating from one sole body and that government control should remain in action, regulating all material. One government principle was to operate through a board of governors thus relieving them of day-to-day control.
There have been many debates concerning the amount of control the government have over British broadcasting and in times of conflict, such as the Falklands War, the governmental power and influence over all aspects of the media becomes increasingly apparent. The fourth principal states that public service broadcasting should be a trustee of the national interest, that the industry should provide material to suit the interests of all and not to simply broadcast material of a majority interest or social group.
In an attempt to avoid the broadcasting models of the USA, where the media is financed through sale of advertising space, British broadcasting was to be funded by a licence fee, paid by those using the service. Avoiding this manner of commercialism was thought to increase the quality of broadcasting in Britain. The final principal outlined by Seymour-Ure was that broadcasting should be a universal service, the concept that everyone could receive the service that was being delivered.
However, this ideal model, as thought by some, began to change and move outside the barriers. A significant change that occurred within the BBC was the introduction of light entertainment. This was highly frowned upon by John Reith, Director-General of the BBC (1927-38) who saw the entertainment program as a division, creating levels within the industry that were too distant and he believed that it contradicted with the concept of a ‘single service’.
The most significant of developments in the industry however, was the transition from the BBC monopoly to the existence of other, privately owned establishments and therefore a duopoly. Many debates concerning this development arose during the late 1940s and early 1950s, many wished for the BBC to remain a sole broadcasting corporation, concerned that another enterprise would cause conflict and competition, causing the quality of broadcasting to fall. There were others, however, that thought that the BBC would become too powerful and that the introduction of other broadcasting companies would prevent this.
MP Selwyn Lloyd of the Conservative party was one of the few dissenting voices heard at this time disagreeing with ‘the continuance of the B.B.C. as a monopoly, because of its size and unwieldiness, because it may hinder development, is a monopolistic employer, and would have excessive power.’ In his minority report, heard in the report of the Broadcasting Committee 1949, he also dismissed any worries of quality loss, ‘The charge that competition would degrade standards is exaggerated and in any case standards must be maintained by free choice; nor need sponsoring by advertisers degrade them’
When the next Conservative government came to power, the matter was the source of much constant debate and in the 1952 White paper it was suggested that the BBC monopoly might come to an end. A year later the Independent Television Authority was established, a governing body that was to ensure the quality of broadcasting of other production companies. Public service broadcasting would still exist within the industry but take on very different implications, what do the pubic want? and what is for the good of the public? would be answered and interpreted by broadcasters in diverse ways.
It was this ambiguous nature of the term public service broadcasting that encouraged the Television Act of 1963. Many believed that the values of public service broadcasting had been lost in the independent companies, that they were driven entirely by ratings and not quality. The Pilkington report (1962) stated that public service broadcasting did not simply mean ‘giving the public want it wants’ but to deliver quality and education. Even at this point, the question of what public service broadcasting actually entailed was unclear and its ambiguity makes it extremely difficult to define. The Television Act of 1963 declared that the new broadcasters should provide programming that consistently contained ‘information, education and entertainment’ and not simply the latter. (quoted in McDonnell, 1991, p.45)
Due to these regulatory acts, public service broadcasting had remained similar to that of the initial concept, still holding many of the values outlined in Seymour-Ure’s studies. The authorities were constantly striving to retain high standards and for broadcasting to remain for the ‘good of the public’. However, by the late 1970s a slow change had been noted in attitudes towards broadcasting, values seen in the original concept of public service broadcasting were becoming less relevant. The Annan report of 1977 showed a lack of drive within the industry, a ‘comfortable set-up’ Andrew Willis (1999). It also claimed that the material being delivered by the two broadcasting companies (BBC and ITV) was becoming similar, simply producing mainstream media to comparable standards and style. The Annan report gave suggestions to this problem, to introduce programming that wasn’t mainstream, to relate to those whose interests were not covered in the existing media. This report had unintentionally, some say, led to the prospect of a market-driven industry and the introduction of Channel 4.
Channel 4 began, as the report had suggested, providing an alternative, to try and expand on the material broadcast in Britain, often towards minority groups. Concentrating on issues such as race and sexuality it was claimed that ratings were not essential, that they were providing Britain with a different outlook and style of broadcasting. Although it’s originality and alternative style has remained, channel 4 has completely changed since its arrival, it’s Friday night schedule today for example is arguably completely ratings driven, and has the most imported programming than any other British channel. This is a clear indication, I would argue, of how the importance of public service broadcasting is changed dramatically since its origin, In the case of channel 4 I would argue that it has become simply ‘giving the public what they want.’
ITV has continued throughout to be a entertainment channel, and the attempts throughout the history of broadcasting to encourage all channels to deliver information, education and entertainment have in my opinion, been unsuccessful. Documentary becomes entertainment on ITV, concerned with shock factor and ratings rather than information. I would suggest that public service broadcasting has taken on the same meaning as channel 4, to give the public what they want, to simply receive ratings.
The BBC, although in fierce competition with the other channels, has attempted to remain as it was and respect the values of public service broadcasting. There is programming that many people would still label as inferior quality, but in many of the new programming by the BBC it is clear that there is an attempt to retain its original values, such as the series ‘Walking with dinosaurs’ where ‘information, education and entertainment’ have clearly been addressed. BBC radio, I would agree, has thoroughly remained within the original concept of public service broadcasting and receives high ratings because of this. However, I believe that the next generations prove uninterested in likes of Radio 4 and I believe BBC radio will struggle to either keep its ratings or remain with the original values of public service broadcasting.
In answer to whether public service broadcasting has a future in British broadcasting it is very difficult to say as the term is interpreted in so many diverse ways. Due to the immense change in television, in particular the introduction of Sky, I believe that it would be very difficult to regulate British television as it has been done in the past due to its sheer mass. Without regulation, therefore, the concept of public service broadcasting will become lost, as no one understands its true meaning. I think the BBC will remain, as much as expected, in its initial form, attempting to broadcast material that follows the original structure of public service broadcasting.