Professor of information science and communication
at the University of Rennes II
In the immense ocean of over 5 thousand television broadcasters active in the Europe “of the 27”, there is a great range of diversity but also a certain heterogeneity of the regional and national public audiovisual services, with noteworthy differences between the countries of Northern Europe and the Mediterranean area, as regards regulation, sources of financing and technological development.
1. The similar evolution of public television services in France and Italy
The French and Italian television networks developed in a rather similar way from the period following the Second World War until the mid seventies. At first the two countries created an indissoluble link between television and politics through the establishment of a monolithic monopoly, which was entrusted with managing the public audiovisual service. In this way the news and information services were placed under the tutelage and protection of the political powers. After 1968 the two countries began to deregulate the system in the name of the independence or the 'autonomy' of the media, and were encouraged to do so by a liberal-libertarian critique of the centralised influence of the state, which was seen as being a monopoly. Italy was a pioneer of the deregulation of its broadcasting system, and was seen at that time as a sort of laboratory.
Until the late sixties, the monopoly was seen as a guarantor of pluralism, because it was thought suitable and effective in resisting the double threat of propaganda and subservience to what Lèon Blum called the forces of money (les forces de l’argent). In the late Sixties, critics of the public monopoly found a point of agreement in the following equation: «public monopoly = political (or governmental) monopoly». A new phase began later on in the early nineties, which was characterized by processes of concentration upon the sector of private broadcasting and the weakening of public television.
Unlike in the Anglo-Saxon countries, television never ceased to be reorganized in Italy as in France ever since the period following World War II, according to three different political conceptions of pluralism that followed each other.
- First of all there was the initial model, that I have just defined as a monolithic monopoly, which combined a public service and a monopoly.
- Then, with the start of the process of deregulation and of free market competition, the possibility of a new commercial kind of television led to an increase in the number of channels, mostly funded by advertising.
- Finally, with the development of pay-TV broadcasters, the leading role was played by Canal Plus on both sides of the Alps and the consolidation of a number of private “champion groups”. In France five groups became dominant in the communications market: Bouygues, Lagardère, Vivendi, RTL-Group and Bolloré. In Italy, the situation was simpler because the Fininvest group came to control the market of commercial broadcasting.
Following the same modalities, since the war, television on both sides of the Alps has had three successive mechanisms of funding: public funding, initially deriving from the licence fee, but then becoming a mixed kind of funding, combining licence fees and advertising, during the sixties, long before the multiplication of the commercial broadcasters in the late eighties and the consolidation of new TV proposals directly funded by the viewer-client. The licence fee, which was the main source of funding until 1980, is now the least important. Advertising expanded immensely during the eighties with the advent of the commercial broadcasters, but now it is stagnant in relative values. In the end, direct payment by the consumer has now become the main source of financing for television.
In this context, the sector of public broadcasting has become drastically reduced. The public service never really managed to “free itself” from its traditional role of a political protector and guarantor of information. The adoption of managerial business strategies in order to tackle the growing level of competition with national commercial broadcasters has led to a basic question about the quality, identity, and in certain cases the very legitimacy of a public audiovisual broadcasting service.
If on the one hand the law adopted on 1st August 2000 by the Socialist government led by Lionel Jospin undoubtedly provided an interesting definition of the mission and duties of the public broadcasting service, in practice its scope was rather limited. (* - 1 ).
While on the one hand France and Italy established a specific relationship between political power and television right from the outset – a connection which is not nearly so close in the other European countries – on the other hand, the deregulation of this system has had a much more profound influence which has affected the fields of economics, culture and politics. This exceptional French-Italian situation has resulted in two “anomalies”: On the one hand, the turnaround has enabled a media empire to be establishment, with Berlusconi's Fininvest group controlling commercial broadcasters and, on the other hand, it has allowed the first privatization of a major public television network TF1.
In both cases we find the same model and blueprint at the origin, the same upheaval due to deregulation and the same exceptional results obtained by the new private groups.
2. The French reform of 5th March 2009 regarding “the new public television service“, initiated by President Sarkozy
This latest reform has a threefold economic, political and cultural objective.
The primary purpose is to support those who in France are called “les groupes champions” or the private “champion” groups. As President Sarkozy states: “My hope is that the private audiovisual groups will be powerful, which is to say very strong”.
Secondly, the appointment and dismissal on the basis of a mere opinion, of the president of France Télévisions by the President of the Republic himself, indicates a return of public television into the controlling hand of the state.
Finally, with the removal of advertising for the entire public sector, the goal is to “disconnect” public television from the market and from chasing after audience shares and ratings, in the name of “quality” and “culture”.
This reform therefore pushes France to have two contrasting types of television. On the one hand, there should be an educational and cultural public television service, the programming of which is part defined by the state by nominating the Director: a new “state television” to put it simply, and on the other hand, a commercial television, relieved of many of its obligations which will be both a “TV-school” aimed at a viewer-pupil, and, a “TV-shopping cart”, aimed at a viewer-consumer.
The gradual abolition of advertising on the channels of France Télévisions in the absence of guaranteed continuous revenues, could lead to a weakening of the public broadcasting service, reducing its scope or even causing a sort of “self-amputation”.
This law makes the economy of a structurally under-funded public television service fragile and precarious, since the license fee is one of the lowest in Europe (116 euros, compared with a European average of 161 euros). In order to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue it has been calculated that we would have to increase the fee by as much as 45 euros! There are very few examples of public television networks without any advertising, and in these cases, the amount of the license fee is much higher like, as in Denmark or for the BBC, which has an annual budget of around five billion euros. The calculation of the “economic equation” of financial compensation for lost advertising revenue is complex and it lacks sufficient safeguards.
The first source of compensation is a tax of 0.9% on the services provided by operators in electronic communications (Internet access providers and telecommunications operators).
The second compensatory source is a tax of 3% on the supplementary advertising revenues of private broadcasters.
Finally, the adoption of an indexation of the license fee will permit it to be increased to 120 euros in 2010.
With such a financial equation it thus seems rather difficult to improve the quality of programmes as well as to ensure adequate investment in new technologies and audiovisual “creativity”. Moreover, the European Commission has announced the opening of an investigation into this mode of financing, which could become a further threat to this form of compensation.
3. European positions on matters of public service broadcasting and their limits.
The lack of a shared cultural identity, the linguistic diversity and the absence of audiovisual communication in the Treaties of Rome and the Single European Act of 1986 have combined to weaken public services. Without a doubt, the Maastricht Treaty introduced the possibility of a European Community intervention in the audiovisual broadcasting field but, giving priority to the principle of “ competition that is free and without distortion” Europe favoured the policies of deregulation, thereby tending to marginalize public services, considering them as exceptions to the principle of competition.
The very definition of public services varies across countries. As regards the European Union's audiovisual policy, it gives almost no space to public services, which are reduced to the level of “Services of General Economic Interest” (SGEIs), subject, without exception, to the right to free market competition. This has fostered a kind of “laissez-faire” form of deregulation. The European Community law does not distinguish between private and public television broadcasters, considering publicity as the usual means for financing them, hence the sacred principle of the interdiction of “state aid”. On this basis, the principal objection of the European Commission is based on the double funding of public services through advertising and public financing, which also explains the French and Spanish reforms adopted in 2009.
The Protocol annexed to the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 reinforced this approach in a strictly economic sense by stressing that “the system of public broadcasting in the Member States is directly related to the democratic, social and cultural needs of each society and to the need to preserve media pluralism”. This made it possible to authorize the use of public financing in two specific cases: in the presence of public service missions and in the case of not contravening the rules of competition. The AMSD (“Audiovisual Media Services Directive”) of December 2007, which replaced the “TSF” directive of 1989, promotes the growth of advertising space and the interruption of programs for advertising breaks.
That said, the prevalence of the right to free competition has been consistently reaffirmed, particularly in the communications of the 2001 Commission on public broadcasting and of the 2009 Commission “on the application of rules regarding state aid to public broadcasting services”. On this key point The Lisbon Treaty has no influence on the orientation of European Community law. There is still a real deficit in European policies in the audiovisual policy field and this is accompanied by a strict control of the commission on their funding. Since 2006, the Dutch, Danish, Austrian, Flemish and Irish public television broadcasters were asked to explain and clarify their modalities of financing. The greatest risk for public broadcasters consists in their financial suffocation and their possible marginalization following the North American model of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
In this context, the creation of a European public broadcaster seems quite illusory, particularly because the tastes of national/regional viewers in Europe are characterised by very deep cultural and linguistic diversities (which is still the real situation in Europe in general). It is also necessary to detect the previous failures, except in the case of ARTE, a non-European Franco-German network, and of Euronews which functions more as an agency than as genuine broadcaster. Finally, the expansion of the situation to the “Europe of the 27” multiplies the difficulties even more. The private groups in the audiovisual broadcasting field certainly undergo processes of concentration and vertical integration along the whole multi-media production chain, but faced with such concentrations the search for a fusion or amalgamation between public networks seems to be without hope.
Three main suggestions could be made:
a) Europe could promote its actions less in the sector of editorial rehashing, publishing and programming than in that of production and creation, while supporting an industrial policy that promotes the emergence of a mixed public-private pole of audiovisual industries so as to offset the U.S. hegemony in this area.
b) The public television services that share the same foundations and the same purposes could, according to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), combine certain obligations of production, distribution and financing of the works.
c) A prototype of a Charter of the missions of the public broadcasting service could be adopted in order to define their institutional roles. The public services are a central element of democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression and information and European cultures and should no longer be regarded as trivial firms operating in the single market. This Charter should specify the political independence of the European public sectors as a fundamental principle, based on the model of the BBC. As desired by the Committee of Ministers in Reykjavik in May 2009, meeting on the initiative of the Council of Europe, a situation of “genuine editorial independence and institutional autonomy” of the public services should be established.
Cooperation between the European public services with the help of the EBU and the Council of Europe can be a useful contrast and barrier to liberalistic developments in European Community law.
The neo-liberal emphasis in EU rules has encouraged the deregulation of public services, which are considered as “SGEIs” (Services of General Economic Interest) in the areas of telecommunications, transport and energy. This weakening of the public audiovisual sphere favours the formation of a North American-type model with a PBS of a good quality but, on the fringes of the system, the existence of highly concentrated large private groups and the formation of a single and powerful regulatory authority. This scenario has paradoxically tended to take a foothold in Europe ever since the principle of “free competition without bias” became a reality. It goes hand in hand with the support given by the Member States to their “champion groups” in the name of industrial policies as represented by RTL-Group, Bouygues-TF1, Fininvest or News Corp. Under these conditions, audiovisual broadcasting in Europe is now in a schizophrenic position, trying to steer a middle course of compromise between the founding principle of competition, industrial support for its own champions and the safeguarding of public services as pillars of democracy.
Notes(* - 1 )
We find an interesting definition of the public networks that “offer the public considered in all of its aspects, a series of programs and services that are characterized by their diversity and pluralism, their demand for quality and innovation, and their respect for the rights of the person and constitutionally defined democratic principles.
They present a diversified offer of analogical and digital programmes in the fields of information, culture, knowledge, entertainment and sport. They promote democratic debate and exchanges between various sectors of the population as well as social integration and citizenship. They ensure the promotion of the French language and enhance the linguistic and cultural heritage in its regional and local diversity. They contribute towards the development and dissemination of intellectual and artistic creation as well as civic, economic, social, scientific and technical knowledge and audiovisual and media education.
They assure the honesty, independence and pluralism of information as well as the pluralistic expression of the currents of thought and opinion in the respect of the principle of equality and equal treatment in compliance with the recommendations of the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel.
The organisations of the public sector of audiovisual communication, for the exercise of their duties, contribute towards external audiovisual activity, and the spread of French culture and language in the world. They are doing their utmost to develop new services that are able to enrich and supplement their supply of programmes as well as the new techniques of production and dissemination of programmes and services of audiovisual communication.”
State aid: Commission approves immediate payment of subsidy to France Télévisions and opens in-depth investigation into long‑term funding mechanism IP/09/1264 - Brussels, 1 st September 2009