Professor of Culture and formats for TV and Radio of the University of Roma Tre
Is it possible to construct a European public television?
Problems and prospects opened up by the Treaty of Lisbon
The reports presented at this meeting confirm that European television has gone through three periods. The first one was characterized by public service television broadcasters in a monopoly regime (with the partial exception of Independent Television in the United Kingdom), and mainly funded by licence fees or the state. The second was characterized by a coexistence between public service television networks and commercial broadcasters, in which the most dynamic resource was advertising. The third period is that of digital television, marked by a great abundance of channels and mostly supra-national, in which the payments of viewers (for pay-per-view) is the most effective resource. The demise of the “authoritarian variant of the public service” in the former communist countries of Europe, which was followed by wild liberalization, also belongs to this third period.
A remarkable paradox is that the public service television broadcasters were more European when Europe was not so united. The radio-television broadcasting companies of the various European states gave rise to the Union Européenne de Radiodiffusion (1950), Eurovision (1954), EVN, EuroVision News (1954), and also the Prix Italia, which is hosting us today (1948). But the Treaty of Rome (1957) never mentioned radio and TV, not even in the additions, whereas reference is made to bananas, mineral oils and coffee.
In the second phase, that of competition, the differences between the various European public services, all of which were related to politics in different ways, prevailed over the common traits that had existed before and that partly depended on the situation determined by the approach of Lord Reith. Each country faced the transition from a monopoly to competition in its own particular way and the first directive “Television without Frontiers” (1989) was issued when this transition had already occurred in most countries. In this period a pan-European public channel could have been established but the “Green Paper” (1982) does not mention it and various generous pan-European experiments found it hard to survive, with the exception of Euronews (1992).
Things got more complicated in the nineties when, in the third phase of those we mentioned above, the policy of liberalization and privatization became the leitmotif of the Union in the Maastricht Treaty (1986) and when each bulkhead or partition between the telecommunications sector and that of radio and television broadcasting started to collapse. Broadcasting is never mentioned even in the Maastricht Treaty. The famous additional protocol of the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) created a defensive shield around the public service, but in the form of a sort of “cultural exception” that must not infringe upon the competition. Any kind of economic vitality was therefore denied to it. For example as soon as a public TV service enters the sector of digital television (it is the precise duty of every management to keep pace with technological evolution) it is accused of disturbing the competition and utilising state aid, especially if it tries to request payments from its users: those customer payments that in those years proved to be the most dynamic resource.
With the Treaty of Amsterdam the public service risked becoming an audiovisual museum, or an American PBS, also because of the substantial failure of the projects of e.Europe that had an impact at the time when the dot.com bubble burst and September the 11th, 2001. Of course, the absence of a European policy for public services did not help with the transformation of the broadcasting systems of the former communist countries.
This pessimism can be reduced by a careful examination of the Lisbon Treaty and the Protocol it contains regarding “services of general interest”. If one thinks that the Treaty of Nice allows for “variable geometries” in European alliances (“reinforced cooperation”) the space allowing opportunities for development initiatives and not only for the safeguarding and protection of public services becomes significant. I wish to emphasize some points:
• The initiatives cannot be realized except by in digital and by introducing forms of payment from the users, otherwise they are bound to fail due to the stagnation of the other resources of the public services. The digital commitment of the public services cannot be conceived as an investment in the form of a free aid grant.
• It will not be possible to obtain everyone’s agreement but multiple variable geometry initiatives are desirable.
• The initiatives must have both a productive dimension and a supra-national broadcasting platform.
• The initiatives may have a majority of public services as well as a co-optation of energies of another type, not solely of the EU community but also commercial, and also Users generated contents.
• The initiatives cannot be limited to information on the European Union or to the divulgation of its policies, as some people understand the European channel.
One should finally reflect on the fact that the “unequal exchange” between Europe and the U.S. in terms of television content has largely changed. The industry of formats is largely European (Endemol, Strix, etc.) and it has a global dimension. Alongside the many negative factors it is therefore possible to introduce other factors that are more open to the future.
Let me conclude by asking some questions to the speakers:
- Do you think the formation of a radio-television broadcaster of European law is possible within the new framework of Lisbon?
- Do you think the differences between the various broadcasting systems and in particular within the transition to digital (I am thinking particularly of Germany) will tend to decrease?
- Do you want to go over the main points of the French experience of a public network free of advertising?
- Do you not think that in the context of the current situation the abolition of advertising will become transformed into a further marginalization of public service broadcasting?
- Do you think that the European public television experience will have to make use of the new digital technologies and, within them, pay-per-view, providing a new financial resource?
- Do you think we can speak of a “Latin” model of neo-television (of the Iberian peninsula, France and Italy) which is different from a “continental” (mostly German) model, of the English experience mixed with liberalism and “Reith-ian” values, and of the “Nordic” model of the Scandinavian public services?
- How do you think is possible to integrate the post-communist countries into the experience of European television, considering the strong push towards commercialization that has occurred within these countries?
- How is it possible to pass from the safeguarding and protection of the public service to its affirmation in the era of competition and privatization?