Public Service Broadcasting

Part of the DUV : Sozialwissenschaft book series (DUVSW)


Chapter 1 has shown that British broadcasting has been in constant transition. The same applies to the concept of public service broadcasting. Depending on the environment in which broadcasting operated over the years, this also had an influence on how those responsible for legislation and in charge of the broadcasting institutions approached broadcasting. What consequences this has had for the concept of public service broadcasting will be investigated in the following chapters.


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  1. 1.
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    In Reithian terms to entertain meant to ‘occupy agreeably’. See also McDonnell, James (1991): Public Service Broadcasting: A Reader. London: Routledge, p. 55.Google Scholar
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    Reith (1924), p. 34. In his book John Reith outlined how he defined the character of a public service broadcaster.Google Scholar
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    This has frequently resulted in the BBC being accused of being paternalistic and elitist. For a discussion about what constitutes the public interest, as well as underlying concepts and ideologies, see Smith, Anthony (1993a): Books to Bytes. Knowledge and Information in the Postmodern Era. London: British Film Institute, pp. 48–70.Google Scholar
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    Beveridge Report I (1951), recommendation 1. In its evidence to the Beveridge Committee, the BBC had stated that it needed the monopoly to pursue its public service mission. Competition, the BBC argued, would lower standards and undermine the basics of broadcasting as a public trust. See Beveridge Report II (1951), paras 4–8.Google Scholar
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    That is why the structure of the television industry was still remote from the competitive ideal as it was originally intended. Tim Congdon writes: “The value of advertising airtime was far in excess of any conceivable costs of producing programmes. The government therefore imposed a special levy on the companies’ profits, which reduced the incentive to control costs and led to wasteful restrictive practices. Despite the subsequent addition of two further channels (BBC 2 and Channel 4), in the late 1980s the industry remained highly regulated by the standards of other products and services.” Congdon (1992), p. xiii.Google Scholar
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    Brenda Maddox argues that this proved to be decisively important for the BBC: “to let ITV slip under the public broadcasting blanket with it [the BBC]. Unlike NHK [the Japanese public service broadcaster], the BBC cannot easily exhibit the difference between its own ‘public’ and ITV’s ‘commercial’ broadcasting channels.” Maddox, Brenda (1986): Co-existence: a survival strategy for public service broadcasting. In: MacCabe, Colin and Stewart, Olivia (eds.) (1986): The BBC and Public Service Broadcasting. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 79 (author’s own emphasis).Google Scholar
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    Apart from those responsible for programme output this involved the BBC’s Governors who were supposed to be acting in the public’s interest. See also the very detailed account of Briggs, Asa (1979b): Governing the BBC. London: BBC, in which the role, function and working of the Governors is examined. Since the Governors and their role have been the object of much controversy in recent years, this aspect will be covered more detailed in chapters 5.3.6 and 6.9.Google Scholar
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    Being solely a commissioner of programmes, Channel 4 also revolutionised programme production. For a more detailed account of Channel 4’s public service remit, how the channel came into existence, how it worked for the first ten years, and what effect it had on the British broadcasting system, see Harvey (1994).Google Scholar
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    Peacock Report (1986), para 580. What kind of programmes this includes is outlined in para 563.Google Scholar
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    Barnett, Steven and Docherty, David (no year): Public Service Broadcasting in Transition. No publisher. Quotation from the chapter The Millenial [sic] Vision: Peacock and Broadcasting in the UK, p. 22. This implies that the free market would replace the public service concept as an ideal-type of broadcasting structure. The above authors comment further that such a system is incapable of fulfilling those public service roles as they are widely understood.Google Scholar
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    This also polarised opinion regarding public provision of services, an issue that has been debated fiercely until the 1990s.Google Scholar
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    The following example illustrates how competition from commercial companies forced the BBC to rethink its programming philosophy: in its early days, the BBC television news was read by a newsreader who did not appear on screen. ITN (Independent Television News, ITV’s news provider) adopted a different approach with the newsreader addressing the audience directly. Since this was much better received by the audience, the BBC followed suit and changed its slightly outdated presentation technique, taking over ITN’s presentation style.Google Scholar
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    Regarding programme production Peter Goodwin remarks that ITV’s public service broadcasting remit was not wholly lost as a result of the Broadcasting Act 1990: after countless debates, very specific requirements were written into the licences of the new franchise holders. In his opinion, the main problem regarding the production of programmes that follow public service ideals lies with the ITC, which is intended to regulate with a ‘lighter touch’: how will the ITC react if it is faced with the options of either relaxing previously made promises or risking that an ITV company will not survive? See Goodwin, Peter (1992): Did the ITC save British public service broadcasting? In: Media, Culture and Society (London, Sage), Vol. 14 (1992), pp. 653–661. An assessment of the impacts of the Broadcasting Act 1990 on ITV programme productions is also given by Mike Watts of Central Television.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Prosser (1992), p. 175. Prosser concludes further that “[...] the system operating in Britain until the end of 1990, while not containing any clear definition of public service broadcasting, attempted to ensure that such broadcasting took place by a number of disparate means.” Prosser (1992), p. 179.Google Scholar
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    In the preface, the BRU makes clear that the aim of their publication was “[...] to define those main elements of public service broadcasting as it has evolved in Britain which, it is argued, should be retained within whatever systems are devised to provide broadcasting as new communications technologies come into use. It is not therefore a defence of the existing public-service (broadcasting) institutions as they are today or as they may become; it is concerned with the whole landscape of British broadcasting, now and in the future.” Broadcasting Research Unit (1985), p. i. The document was acknowledged by the Peacock Committee and included in their final report. See Peacock Report (1986), para 33.Google Scholar
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    The latter approach is favoured by those arguing the case for a Public Service Broadcasting Council. Channel 4, being solely a commissioner of programmes, is often pointed to as an example that this would be possible. However, there are still a number of reasons for having one large vertically integrated institution like the BBC. (See also chapter 6.5.)Google Scholar
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    It is obvious that a small production company cannot provide the above even though they are perfectly capable of producing public service programmes. Something similar applies to large ITV networks who have come under severe financial pressures as a result of the Broadcasting Act 1990, and do not have the above points as their top priority.Google Scholar
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    In a study for the European Policy Forum Chris Hopson, former advisor to David Mellor at the Department of National Heritage, elaborated nine objectives which, in his opinion, need to be met by a public service broadcaster of the 1990s and beyond. They are: 1.) an audience focus; 2.) quality; 3.) diversity and choice; 4.) accessibility; 5.) universal access; 6.) editorial independence; 7.) efficiency and value for money; 8.) accountability; 9.) national identity. See Hopson, Chris (1992): Reforming the BBC. Public Service Broadcasting in The New Market. London: European Policy Forum for British and European Market Studies, pp. 15–16, where the individual points are explained in greater detail. It is interesting to note that almost all the objectives outlined by Hopson also feature in Extending Choice. Michael Checkland has a similar view on this matter. In order to survive in the marketplace of the 1990s, the BBC has to meet the following objectives according to Checkland: provision of a diversity of high quality programmes at the popular as well as the minority ends of the market; cost effective use of the licence fee and accountability; and highest and most reliable editorial practices.Google Scholar
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    Since all the changes applied to the BBC since the late 1980s (see chapter 5) also resulted in a changed understanding of public service broadcasting, chapter 6 will raise some of the issues at stake and thereby examine what consequences this is likely to have on the concept of public service broadcasting in the future.Google Scholar
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