In a 21st century media world of endless choice, should we still have to pay for public service broadcasting?

Broadcasters are dealing with ageing audiences and limited appeal to younger people – but at the same time offer 'a source of civil discourse in an uncivil era'

Adil Ray, DJ for BBC Asian Network, during his show in a BBC studio at Birmingham's Mail Box,
9th September, 2008. Photo by John Robertson.
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The 21st century has seen the biggest upheaval in the world’s media since the television age exploded into homes everywhere after the Second World War. Top executives, especially those involved in public service broadcasting (PSB) desperately ask themselves an unanswerable question: will we survive? And if so, how? Within the BBC, where I worked for many years, Germany’s ARD and ZDF, America’s PBS and National Public Radio (NPR), as well as many other great broadcasting institutions, those in leadership positions look at the rise of Google, Amazon, Twitter, Netflix, Facebook and others and ponder whether they themselves are dinosaurs waiting for extinction in 10 or 20 years. The BBC is almost a century old, founded by wireless manufacturers on October 18, 1922. Its broadcasting model was copied almost immediately in Japan, where NHK was created in 1926. Nowadays public service broadcasters are considered important – and sometimes self-important – national treasures, from Australia to Albania and most countries in between. But they all have similar problems – ageing audiences, limited appeal to younger people and increasing resentment over how they are funded.

The BBC has held endless internal discussions on survival, many focused on "the future of news". Videos have been produced and are available on YouTube, including one which has a stellar cast of editors and thinkers, new media creators, professors and pundits. The video is thought-provoking but the biggest thought which is provoked is that nobody really knows anything. The experts agree on the obvious – change is coming, choice is expanding and younger viewers do not behave like their parents. But when it comes to finding a survival plan, they agree on nothing much at all. Some argue that broadcasters must focus more on the young. Others say that people live longer so older viewers will remain key. Some claim that news must be more global; others insist on the need to be more local. Some assert that anyone can be an online "citizen journalist". Others are convinced that professional journalists will be more necessary in the future to find pearls of truth in the torrent of dubious internet information. If you laid all these media pundits end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

But after talking to public service broadcasting executives in Europe and North America, two apparently contradictory themes emerge: future funding will be increasingly difficult but there has never been such a strong demand for reliable, factual information. Audiences are up – way up. In the United States, Chris Turpin, acting senior vice president for NPR, told me its 264 member stations have never been busier and never had bigger audiences. Its flagship programme All Things Considered saw audience growth every month over the last 24 months. Morning Edition, another key part of NPR's schedule, grew its audience in 22 of the previous 24 months. From the end of 2015 until the end of last year, the audience overall grew around 20 per cent while commercial competitors lost ground.

“Our trust numbers have increased among conservatives as well as liberals," says Mr Turpin. "Public service values mean we are seen as a source of civil discourse in an uncivil era. And attacks on the media bring in more money.”

NPR has a peculiar funding model. Money comes from charitable foundations, sponsorship (a kind of low-key advertising) and also from ordinary people pledging individual donations. The “fantastic audience growth” has meant “sponsorship has gone through the roof,” says Mr Turpin. Donations are up significantly and “revenue is healthier than it has been for years”. There are now hugely ambitious plans to expand but, he admits, in the longer term the whole media landscape is “fragile and feels very precarious”.

In Europe, there is similar medium-term optimism and long-term concern. The BBC remains the most trusted news source in Britain. It produces high quality factual programmes such as Blue Planet II and also popular drama from McMafia to Peaky Blinders. In Germany the top two TV broadcasters for some years have been the public stations ZDF and ARD, outclassing and outperforming commercial competitors like RTL. As a senior German broadcasting executive put it: "In audience figures, we have overtaken by far the private stations" because viewers "trust in the quality of public television". Even so, he said, in the Trump era where politicians routinely denounce so-called "fake news", some of his staff have been abused in a phrase from the Nazi era as "lugen presse" — the lying media.

“The quality of what we do is not decreasing,” he said, “but the perception of our quality is decreasing,” especially among “young people for whom our news bulletins are insignificant”.

ARD and ZDF together have committed more than $60 million to a new project called Funk, directed at young people under 25. The idea is to put video content on Facebook and other channels "where young users are already", rather than expect them to switch to existing TV channels. But the German executive admitted: "This is putting quality input somewhere in a huge ocean – and the ocean is becoming larger." These "quality islands" mean German public service broadcasters are "absolutely safe" until 2030 but after that, he says, "we are drowning".

Both German broadcasters are funded by a compulsory tax on all households costing just over $21 a month. Many other countries have similar financing arrangements but some politicians and commercial rivals claim it is unfair to charge everyone for a service not everyone wants, likes or needs.

Moreover, there is an old adage which says that “if you do what you’ve always done, you get what you’ve always got”. But if complacent broadcasters do in the digital 21st century what they did in the 20th century, they will go the way of Kodak, IBM, Blockbuster, Nokia or Blackberry. The key to survival must therefore be to maximise public trust and minimise resentment about public funding. That means repeatedly demonstrating that public service broadcasting has a clear, benign, useful purpose. The BBC’s 2017 annual report puts it this way: “To provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them. To support learning for people of all ages. To show the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services. To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the UK’s nations and regions and, in doing so, support the creative economy across the UK. To reflect the UK, its culture and values to the world.”

In a 21st century media world of endless choice, paying a tax to fund publicly what some claim can be done privately will always spark a heated political debate. Public service broadcasting may not work in theory but rising audiences suggest that for most people in most countries, it may continue to work in practice – but for how long?

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author