By Olaf Steenfadt

“Show me what your public broadcaster looks like and I tell you what country you live in” – this bonmot by Anonymous reflects an inherent catch-22 type relationship between collectively funded mass media and the society around it quite nicely. Public media’s shape and performance come as a product of the political culture in any country, while it’s programming is influencing it in return. Therefore, the task of media development and transition, particularly the migration from state to public media, can never be considered as a linear string of causalities, but rather as an iterative perpetuum.

Not surprisingly it gives room for so much frustration and grievances.

After 20+ years of media reform in Central Eastern Europe, a reality check is much needed and could easily lead to a call to abandon the Dual System all together. Despite all the effort, non-commercial media still lingers somewhere between state control and public remit in many countries, prone to becoming prey of the ruling party of the day. As a result, a self-propelling mix of precarious budgets, flawed governance, boring content and ailing trust of the public sends the original idea of Public Service Media into a downward spiral of slow, painful extinction.

Proponents of assisted suicide argue that the original rationale to have such a thing as Public Media has been perverted over and over again, especially in the context of emerging democracies. Instead of correcting market failure, it would make things worse by distorting the markets and, eventually, harm media pluralism.

I don’t agree.

First and foremost, one has to admit that the picture is very heterogeneous and not all-black. Czech public radio and TV for example have an encouraging history of successful transition on offer and just passed a peer-review by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), approving its compliance with Public Service Media’s core values. Also in the Baltic, public broadcasters cannot be regarded as an outright failure of reform – rather the opposite is the case.

In countries where the state of Public Media and particularly its level of independence from party control gives more reason for concern, like Hungary for example, one could argue that this appears rather as a result of much wider shifts in the political arena, than a systemic collapse of the Dual System as such.

Moreover, if a market fails for whatever reason, it is distorted in itself. Any regulatory intervention to correct this, comes as a counter-distortion by definition and that’s not semantics only, but a rule of physical science as well as economics. So yes, the original concept of Public Media is targeted, purposeful distortion of failing markets for the common good – nothing wrong with that.

If, however, Public Media allows itself to be reduced to compensate the deficiencies of commercial media only and fill the gap of what’s left, it will be doomed from the start and, indeed, end up in an elitist reserve. However where Public Media is successful, it manages a very sensitive balance of two contradictory policies at the same time. First and foremost it caters to the audiovisual needs of underserved minorities and, yes, delivers what nobody else does. But secondly it offers highly popular and competitive mainstream programming for mass audiences, trying to reach and satisfy as many of those who actually pay for it as possible. Is this market distortion? – of course. But the crucial question is: does it do harm and if yes, to whom?

Apart from the apparent risks of dominance, strong Public Service Media could also offer a few opportunities for sustaining healthy media markets. I can think of at least three of them:

Usually, broadcasters commission original content and thus, feed a supplier market of independent producers. In the case of Public Media, these investments are usually geared towards becoming a subsidy for the domestic creative industries and the smaller a county is, the more important this becomes. Now one can easily argue, that you don’t need a Public Broadcaster for this, but funds could be distributed to production companies directly. However, editorial content sourcing and curating is not exactly comparable to the procurement of office furniture. So one would then have to set up a new entity to administer these grants, which might not look much different from a Public Media organization in the end. Moreover, where corruption, political pressure, partisanship and even organized crime are an issue, a concept of de-institutionalization will most likely not solve anything. To the contrary, only strong, viable institutions can help to stabilize societies in transition – and in the case of Public Media safeguard its independence.

Secondly, Public Media can set quality standards for the whole market to meet. Daily news-bulletins of commercial stations in Britain and Germany, for example, are not bad at all but only for one reason: because they have to compete with BBC news, ARD and ZDF on any given day – and vice versa, of course. Reciprocally, if Public Media programming drops in quality, the whole market’s standard goes down with it immediately and there are numerous examples across Europe – not only in the East by the way – illustrating this.

Thirdly, in addition to audience, distribution and supply markets, there is a talent market. For being the critical resource in a creative sector, Public Media usually engages in the training of staff to a larger extent than commercial competitors do. As a result, the whole industry benefits from this investment as employees float back and forth.

Now these days, vocabulary like market failure and distortion becomes even more relevant with a view on the digital age we are just entering. While the Internet offers unlimited space and amounts of content coming along, it remains to be seen whether this automatically leads to more pluralism and variety. While in theory an infinite platform with almost zero entry cost sounds promising, in reality it seems that new monopolies arise and marginalize old, local, market failures by superimposing new global ones.

At the same time people start to wonder if this, indeed, very pluralistic online cacophony of our time contributes to the advancement of societies or might lead to more polarization, fragmentation and, eventually, extremism instead?

This is exactly where the idea of Public Media deserves a fresh look, from which it might be able to derive a new raison-d’être. According to the “Agora” paradigm, referring to the ancient Greek marketplace of ideas, our information societies of the 21st Century need moderated and secure common spaces for the exchange of views, societal negotiation, dialogue and consensus, a place which is not only, technically, accessible for all, but where large parts of societies actually show up and meet – as opposed to those zillions of secluded, partisan bubbles of likeminded people on the web, disconnected from each others.

While the Internet could propel informational self-determination of the individual, social cohesion suffers from it unless it is decisively supported and invested in. That’s why, in my view, the concept of Public Media might be needed more than ever in today’s digital environment, instead of easily abandoning it.

But how can this be achieved practically?

What do you think?