Open the box

With the right protection, public service broadcasting can embrace new
technology and meet the needs of viewers as citizens, rather than consumers,
argues Pat Holland.

New systems of production, distribution and reception are revolutionising the television universe. For
a start there is much more of it, as cable, satellite and digital delivery systems offer hundreds of
channels. Secondly, the convergence with computer technology, especially the Internet, is changing
the relationship between viewers and screen.

The concept of a 'channel' has itself changed: some are devoted to sport, news or parliament; there
are lifestyle, music and movie channels. The average cable bundle may include French, German and
Italian channels, as well as many, such as CNN, whose aims are international, but based physically
and ideologically in the US. Broadcasting crosses national boundaries, and European policies affect
domestic decisions.

The changes have raised fears of 'dumbing down' and nervousness at the prospect of cross-national
ownership. Technological dazzle has often blinded people to other possibilities than the supermarket
world of 'consumer choice'. After all, throughout the 1980s this was where the dynamism and
excitement appeared to be.

Fortunately the political climate is changing. The glittery world of global markets is looking shabby
and its wares unsatisfactory. This is the time to examine the principles on which British public service
broadcasting has been based ­ not to move backwards to some mythical past, but to consider how
such principles can be the basis for looking forward.

In Britain, public service principles have seen frequent modifications and changes in emphasis in the
60 years since John Reith first proclaimed his lofty intention to educate, inform and entertain a broad
public. In the 1920s, his audience had access to few of those assets. Today we have them in
abundance, which is all the more reason to be careful about their management and purpose. The
dynamic, evolving system that is public service broadcasting should be protected both from
government and from commercial pressures, and be able constantly to reinvent itself.

The definition of public service, as it has evolved over the history of British broadcasting, makes it
impossible for the BBC to be a public service broadcaster on its own. That would be to abandon
Reith's visionary aim to address the population across the spectrum. For many working in television,
the evolving ideals of public service have remained an inspirational marker. When I interviewed
broadcasters for The Television Handbook almost all, from sports producers to new recruits,
mentioned the Reithian ideal.

To maintain a public service system in a multi-channel digital environment, the definition of the viewer
as a citizen must be central; it must not be replaced by the much narrower definition of the viewer as
consumer. Citizens are multifaceted characters who need serving in more ways than the passive
consumer. Citizens have the right to participate in public debate about what is provided for them.

The best definitions of a public service system have been hammered out in response to arguments
that the BBC should shrink its aspirations, and confine itself to being merely a cultural broadcaster.
The main aims are universality, affordability, diversity and distance from vested interests.

Universality ensures that no viewers are excluded. This means geographic availability, even though it
costs more to bring a full service to people in remote areas than to those in cities. It also means
programmes must be shown when the appropriate audience is available to view them. It includes a
broad audience appeal as well as the provision of a diverse range of programmes. Clearly these aims
will be achieved differently in the age of multiple channels, 24-hour television and mass VCR
ownership, but one of the main commitments of public service broadcasting remains to combat
cultural disadvantage.

Viewing, as a democratic right, should be affordable to all. The conditions should be created in
which Pay TV, advertising funding and licence funding may sit next to each other (rather than seek to
drive each other out) and the search for other innovative models of funding, such as the (now
abandoned) model by which Channel Four was able to operate through an advertising levy on the
ITV companies, should continue to be explored, including models which have been tried tentatively,
such as local government or subscription funding for local cable channels.

The BBC must be protected against both commercial and government pressures. It must be freed
from the crippling need to apply for the licence fee at frequent intervals ­ a damaging exercise which
makes it subject to government whim. The licence fee remains a brilliant form of funding which is
extremely cheap for the fee payer and guarantees a huge range of programming at a fraction of the
cost of any subscription channel. It means that the cost of viewing is detached from the cost of
production and from marketing aspirations, and it ensures that services are

potentially available to all, regardless of wealth or income. It enables the BBC to be responsible to
its audience who are also its funders, rather than to the government, or to shareholders or owners.
The licence fee is a contribution to a community asset.

The BBC's internal market which has so demoralised staff has gone too far to be reversed, but in
any case we should be looking forward rather than harking back to the past. More secure funding
would ensure independence from government pressures and lead to a change in culture, more
appropriate to a contemporary view of public service. The BBC's digital channels, websites and
other online services are a valuable back-up to broadcast news, educational services and other
material. The BBC should be at the forefront of exploring how converging screen media can be used
in the new century.

A broad public service system would value diversity of structure as well as of programme content.
This means that, alongside the BBC, commercial channels must be subject to positive regulation
through a strengthened regulatory authority which will ensure balanced and diverse programming
across the spectrum. There should be controls on ownership as well as on content, bearing in mind
that the technology which enables access to the new delivery systems is itself a source of profit. The
regulatory authority would require multinational companies such as Cable and Wireless and News
International, who control much of the technology, to ensure a wide range of content.

The final question is: who has access to the airwaves? Who gets to make programmes, and whose
views are represented? A forward-looking public service system would have a greater confidence in
professionalism rather than the constant nervous reference to predictable formulae and calculation of
audience figures which characterise so much current TV scheduling. At the same time, it would
recognise that television is also a space where non-professionals can and must have their say.

At the professional end of the spectrum, domestic production (with adequate budgets) needs to be
protected, and quotas established for new channels. The increase in the number of channels
potentially allows spaces for young people and for new entrants to television to hone their skills. It
also allows for experiments and for failures. At the non-professional end of the scale, the video diary
format which enabled many people to make their own TV could be expanded. Many talk shows
deal with issues of concern to broad swathes of the population, and there is a dedicated movement
of filmmakers and others campaigning for diversity and for minorities, however small, to have access
to the airwaves.

Proper audience research can provide an important insight into how those addressed by television
actually use it. This would widen the democratic debate in the broadest sense. Audiences have
multiple identities. As citizens they expect and appreciate programmes which are both universal and
particular; as individuals with commitments which may be local, or based on ethnicity, political
allegiance, sexual orientation, interests and so on, they want their life experiences to be reflected in
the media. A properly planned and regulated public service system can ensure these aspirations are
addressed. n

Pat Holland is author of The Television Handbook (Routledge).