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Enrico Menduni: introduction to the debate

Turin Prix Italia, Rai – 24th september 2009

Enrique Bustamante Ramirez

Enrique Bustamante, Professor of Broadcast Communications and Advertising at the Complutense University of Madrid and a former member of the Advisory Board for the Reform of State-owned Media, 2004-2005

Facing challenges in the digital era New threats for European Public Broadcasting Services

In recent years public radio broadcasting in Europe has encountered some unprecedented challenges. These derive from deregulation and the emergence of the private sector, which have forced the public service to re-examine its structures and strategies. The rapid rise of digital TV, with the accompanying abundance of digital terrestrial TV offers and the low-attention threshold and discontinuous viewing habits of audiences, have made it necessary for the public service to adapt its programmes to internet and there is a demand for new professional figures based on the new concept of the “multiple-platform and multiple-media editor”. The public service therefore faces a challenge that needs political will-power, appropriate professional abilities and adequate financial means.

The in-depth analysis in a recent paper of mine ( * 1 ) has shown that in the majority of European countries these new requirements have not been suitably adapted into concrete practices in order to successfully meet these challenges. This is particularly the case in the Mediterranean (Neo-Latin) European countries, where the culture of a broadcasting service has traditionally been secondary and subordinated to political powers and interests, but it also applies to the new ex Eastern Bloc member countries of the European Union, with a past history of decades of “real socialism” and subjected to an uncontrolled deregulation of their radio and TV systems after 1989.

In spite of this in recent years the Democratic reforms approved in countries like Portugal (2000-2004) and Spain (2006) seem to have heralded the end of this sort of “Mediterranean curse” with the introduction of a more varied and well-organized audiovisual panorama, while adhering to various fundamental prerequisites for a European public service model (political independence, programme contracts that satisfy precise requirements, the prevalence of public financing over other commercial incomes, etc.).

Within my paper I tried to analyse in what way (together with the powerful pressure exerted by the private sectors in national contexts) the Documents and the Directives of the European Union have contributed towards creating an unfavourable atmosphere for any kind of consolidation of public broadcasting services. This has resulted in the failure to formulate any clear and precise juridical statutes for these institutions, although they are recognised as being “of general economic interest”. This represents a great contrast to the “flexibility” that the European Union itself has frequently shown when dealing with large private groups.

Recent reforms adopted in France and Spain have added to the climate of uncertainty and have led to the fear that they might expand and spread to other countries. The French reform was introduced as a research assignment abroad which led to the Rapport Copé, supposedly based on liberal and progressive ideas. It arranged for the total abolition of commercial advertising on the channels of France-Télévision starting from the end of 2010 and this prohibition actually came into effect in 2009 with a ban on commercials in prime-time and subsequent TV programming time-slots. This policy has also been adopted in Spain where a total elimination of all advertising on the channels of Television Española TVE has been approved by decree, scheduled to take effect before the end of 2009.

These two reforms, of a similar nature, although adopted by ideologically contrasting governments, in both cases use the pretext of the current economic crisis. Nevertheless, by referring in both cases to an idea of the “purity” of the public broadcasting service without sufficiently examining the concrete and genuine economic trends and dynamics, they surrender both the public broadcasting service and the advertising market to the laws and demands of the market. The reforms adopted in France and Spain were preceded or followed by deregulation measures that have been beneficial to private groups (involving the reduction of advertising rules and standards, of investment obligations in favour of cinema and independent audiovisual production, or of antitrust regulations). In this way in both France and Spain there have been important reorganizations in the national audiovisual sectors, with the sole aim of obtaining short-term political gains.

As well as licence fees or direct state funding as public sources of financing, and advertising as an important but increasingly controlled source of income, some other new sources are now emerging, which include fees for the utilization of the radio-electric frequency range, for the advertising revenues of private TV channels, for the earnings of telecommunication operators and for Internet access providers. Nonetheless it is proving rather problematic to ensure and enforce these sources of income, due to complaints and lawsuits that can arise and the inflexibility of the EC regulations.

The weakening of public broadcasting services is likely to place them in a situation of irreparable precariousness considering the present moment in time, which is characterized by the economic crisis and a colossal growth of the national debt of our countries. Apart from various issues concerning the future development of these new models, the following questions regarding their short and long-term implications need to be addressed:

- How will these new public broadcasting companies be managed?

- What kind of impact will new strategies have in a non-competitive context of advertising revenues (in contrast to the situation that has arisen from trying to increase audience shares and ratings)?

- What will be the costs of the programmes used to fill up the programming spaces left vacant by the commercials?

- What role will the public broadcasting services these programmes? have as a stimulus for audiovisual production?

- What influence will pressure groups exert in a future characterized by a system placing an ever-greater emphasis on pandering to market forces?


* 1 - Enrique Bustamante , "Public Service in the Digital Age. Opportunities and Threats in a Diverse Europe", in Isabel Fernández Alonso, Miquel de Moragas ( sous la direction ) , Communication and Cultural Policies in Europe , Barcelona, Generalitat de Catalunya, Colección Lexikon, 2008, pp. 185-215