Public Broadcasters Must Radically Reexamine the Purpose of Their Existence


Public Broadcasters Must Radically Reexamine the Purpose of Their Existence

When the survival and future of a country’s public broadcaster come down to political calculations, with very minor contribution of the professional, academic and expert community, can we even imagine a future for an institution of such importance for democracy? In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the likelihood of survival of the public broadcaster is measured by the number of hands raised “in favor” and the possibility of “buying time”, one cannot expect that audiences will talk differently about the necessity of a public medium, using different language, or with radically different approaches.

That was demonstrated by a recent expert debate on the future of public broadcasters, which was organized by BH Journalists Associations, in which, along with very specific suggestions for addressing the financial crisis and models that could solve the problem in the long run, the show was again stolen by politicians, using arguments we had had heard so many times before.

The critical audience has been reduced to a small number of people, most of them like-minded, who are trying to generate specific changes in the media sphere, with support from representatives of the international community that is more declarative than essential. In this situation, politicians lead the discussion and – whenever they have the chance – they repeat the same, politically and ethnically based arguments, rendering meaningless the whole story of advancing the system of public broadcasters.

Numerous reasons and factors have impacted the situation in which the survival of the national, umbrella broadcaster (BHRT) is questionable and dissatisfaction with the work and quality of programs on the entity broadcasters (FRTV and RTRS) has been rising. The biggest problems have to do with the level of politics, where political instrumentalization is mentioned with regard to the entity broadcasters and lack of political will with regard to the national broadcaster, coupled with their financial unsustainability, absolute unattractiveness and very poor and inadequate programs, which have led to lower viewer ratings and lack of any bond of broadcasters with their audiences.

Due to limited space, I will not cover all these dimensions in this article, nor will I go back into the past, since many authors have addressed the genesis of BHRT’s problems and the public has had an opportunity to see many public appearances after the Decision of the BHRT Steering Board to temporarily stop the production and broadcasting of program as of 30 June.

I will focus on one dimension, which in my opinion is crucial for understanding the purpose of having a public service – and that is the audience, and in line with that the attitude of a country’s citizens to the public service and the manner in which the public service treats them. Essential understanding of this dimension is missing in the ethnicized and politicized B&H and the political, expert and professional community is deprived of quality discussions on this issue – what is the audience in B&H today, what is public interest in the media sphere, and in what way can contribution be given to public values in the field of information. I will add to this discussion a series of open questions and challenges that require public broadcasters, not just in B&H, to reexamine their purpose and further development.

Symbolism without content

The argument that the public service is needed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on a symbolic level, as a socially cohesive factor, is completely valid and all those familiar with the local context will agree with this view. On the other hand, in order for the cohesive function to be successful, a lot more is needed than identification with symbols and institutions of the B&H state. To serve a country’s citizens means to have their trust and support, which is reflected through at least three dimensions – the first is viewership, the second is interaction with citizens, and the third, perhaps most subjective one, is the fact that citizens themselves recognize the public broadcaster as symbolic, democratic and social capital of the country they live in.

In terms of viewership, BHTV holds only eighth place in the entire B&H territory, with a record 6% in 2014 and an average of 4% in the current year. For comparison’s sake, Federal TV was most watched in previous years, with a 12-13% average, while RTRS’s viewership has been mildly rising and is 7% in 2016. Let’s just stick with the umbrella, national broadcaster. A viewership of 6% is extremely low. To compare, only the public service in Albania has lower viewership (around 4%). In order to be relevant and to exercise its public service mission in full capacity, a public service must not only reach a larger number of citizens, but also a more diverse and plural structure of citizens.

BHRT in its structure does not have a single body or mechanism through which it can maintain interactive communication with its audience. Formally, this type of body can exist. Under Article 45 of the BHRT Statute, the Steering Board can form a Program Council as an advisory body, although it would not have the right to make independent public appearances. Croatian Radio and Television practice shows that its Program Council is the core and most vital body of this public broadcaster, a link for the broadcaster’s managing and programming sections with expert and broader audiences. Additionally, HRT in 2012 introduced the position of Commissioner for Service Users, whose main function is to communicate directly with citizens. In the case of BHRT, the Program Council never exercised this function and the 9-member body, even when it did exist (it is no longer active), mostly discussed seasonal program schedules behind closed doors and provided its members (often politically suitable) with satisfactory income in the form of lump sums, per diem and other covered expenses.

The third dimension, which I characterized as subjective, regards trust and support that citizens give to the public service, recognizing it as something that is theirs, rather than political. In Serbia, citizens have in large numbers – through social networks and protests united around the initiative PodržiRTV (#PodržiRTV) – opposed the politicization of Radio and Television of Vojvodina, while in Macedonia citizens have for months been fighting, through a campaign called Protestiram, for democratic society and better public service as a pillar of that society. Around 2,000 people gathered for a protest in Novi Sad on 23 May and a week later there were 3,000. In B&H, dissatisfaction has not yet been expressed and support has not yet been given to the public service in that form. In B&H, no one has launched a civil initiative of this kind following the Decision to Stop the Program.

If none of the above three things have been established in practice – i.e. the program is poorly watched, there is no interaction with the audience, and not even citizens themselves recognize BHRT as something that is theirs and that is public, then we may call this BHRT concept – symbolism without content.

Projection or vision of the future

Even if enough hands are found in legislative bodies and if the issue of funding the public broadcasting system is resolved on the level of the B&H state, there are numerous questions and dilemmas that audiences in B&H, even expert audiences, have not yet encountered. In developed European countries and even in some countries of the region (Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia), some of these dilemmas are on the agenda.

In its 'Vision 2020', the European Broadcasting (EBU) identifies 10 crucial challenges and opportunities for development of public media services and calls on a broader audience – not just its members – to consider them and to act to implement them. I will present some of these challenges below, with a look at the situation in B&H and other countries in the region.

1. How to ensure a wide audience reach in a fragmented media landscape?

Unlike the B&H landscape, where fragmentation refers to territorial, ethnic and interest-based divisions, in developed EU countries fragmentation primarily regards diversified and varied thematic tastes and consumption needs of the media audience, diversity of platforms and content in the digital age, as well as numerous options for accessing content by media audiences, which they themselves choose, create and decide when to access. This situation requires essential reexamination of the fundamental principle of public broadcasters – universal reach, public interest and creation of a symbolic public space for participation and debate of all citizens. The main point is to find a balance between public interest and universal reach, on one hand, and targeted and personalized content, on the other. This type of discussion currently does not exist in B&H.

2. How to make public services more open and diverse?

Public services should reflect the diversity of the societies they operate in, both in their programs and in their employee structure. In B&H, this diversity comes down to respecting ethnic and political quotas, but neglecting the vast cultural, ethnic, religious, sexual and other types of diversity whose presence on public services is reduced to ‘incidental occurrences’. In the long run, this leads to alienation of audiences from media outlets and seeking alternative channels for consuming information and meeting other (educational, cultural, entertainment) needs.

3. How to be distinctive in a crowded media market?

In an era of proliferation of commercial televisions, corporate and politically motivated media projects (which has lately been the case in B&H), subscription options (pay-tv) for desired channels and large number of online media, the question is – how to produce public interest program which is different, but at the same time interesting and recognizable among the citizenry. Neoliberals believe that the market itself should determine what the audience needs and they advocate that public services should only offer contents that are not present in the commercial market or are not profitable for production by private broadcasters (children’s, documentary, national minority programs, etc.). Advocates of public media services maintain that they should not be reduced only to deficient genres, topics and programs, but should set standards for production excellence and technical standards. Needless to say, public broadcasters in B&H are far from that ideal, with Al Jazeera and N1 currently coming closest to it. Unburdened by market competition, with its annual budget ensured, Al Jazeera is able to maintain professional standards and a high level of production quality, while in the case of the program offer of N1, which competes in the market with other televisions, a combination has been made of professional work, attractive content and appropriate context and it is recognized by the audience. With regard to deficient content, particularly programs on culture and art, a positive example from the region is Radio Television Serbia’s third specialized program. This channel was launched in 2005 as RTS DIGITAL, an experimental program with digital broadcasting, and its content was devoted to culture and art. The channel’s audience is not large but is loyal and its educational function has been recognized as very important. In 2015 the channel was renamed RTS 3 and is part of the multiplex 1 offer which covers 95% of Serbia’s territory.

4. How to remain a reliable source of information?

Knowing that public broadcasters in B&H are politicized, citizens have less and less, if any, trust in information offered in their primetime news programs. Editorial independence only exists as a concept on paper and few journalists and show hosts instill trust, most of them being at private media. Another challenge is related to the way the news is presented. While the habit of watching primetime news after 7 P.M. still exists in B&H, younger generations are seeking new formats. Mostly commercial televisions have an interesting and innovative approach and FACE TV can serve as a positive example, airing news blocs every hour – Vijestnik 6 at 6 p.m., Vijestnik 7 at 7 p.m. and Vijestnik 8 at 8 p.m., in which journalists are tasked with finding 6, 7 and 8 news items respectively which they did not find in other media that day. One of the more attractive formats is also a 24-hour news channel in which editors, reporters and journalists produce a round-the-clock news program, with additional analysis and expert commentary (precisely what the audience is increasingly seeking today – expert analysis and additional interpretation). An example of this kind of public service channel is HRT 4 with the option of online streaming.

5. How to remain relevant for younger audiences?

A global trend, which is pronounced in B&H, is that young people are decreasingly consuming content in a linear way and are increasingly accessing information indirectly, more and more using mobile telephones. Lack of strategy at public broadcasters in B&H, both on the state level and on entity levels, additionally alienates younger audiences from their content because what the three public services are currently offering (with a slight exception of Federal TV) are mostly web presentations, whose design is unattractive and which replicate the content of their radio and TV broadcasters.

6. How does the public service take on new roles?

In partnership with public and particularly cultural institutions, public services could offer citizens access to valuable archives, through so-called digital commons. The role of public services, in a sea and abundance of information available in the digital era, is to assert themselves as authorities. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, what makes public services stand apart is editorial accountability and impartiality in selection of content, something that authors call ‘Public Service Navigator’. Of course, if public services do not enjoy public trust, it is very difficult to exercise this role.

7. How to ensure continuous innovation?

Although public services, funded by public money through different collection models, as a matter of principle should not be part of market competition, the case in B&H shows that financial unsustainability is the main reason for the poor situation and for the lack of strategy or any kind of innovation in the operation of the state broadcaster. Audiences in B&H, reduced to discussions on existential problems and financial and political fraud in the operation of broadcasters, are denied considerations on advancing their services, expanding to new platforms etc. In developed countries, particularly countries with critical audiences in which the dual system of private and public is established in a way that does not inhibit competition in the media market – the question is raised, and discussion is ongoing, on how much and to what extent public services are allowed to expand to new platforms. In Germany for example, public services – ARD and ZDF – may use new media services in a very limited scope because it conflicts with the way their mission is regulated by law.

8. How to remain accessible and recognizable?

In the wealth of information that is available to us today, how do we recognize public service content and what makes it stand out? How can audiences be guided toward such content while at the same time taking account of their tastes and informational needs? Featuring public service content on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is welcome, because these are newsfeed platforms, but it is questionable how much attention such content will attract and how much control a public service actually has over the way in which content is featured and promoted on such platforms.

9. How to meet new management and leadership requirements?

Public televisions created with the transformation of what were once state broadcasting systems in the former Yugoslavia are today mastodons in the media world, clumsy, non-functional and technically incompetent institutions that are not managing well in the market. Even a look at the Radio and Television Building, better known as ‘The Gray Home’, points to the humorous conclusion that it is a museum exhibit. But it is not just facades that make up a good public media service; it is also about the internal structure, restructuring management models, merging newsrooms and creating integrated desks in order to achieve a high degree of productivity, efficiency and coordination. This requires maximum reduction of administration as well as maximum investment in production capacities, with most investments going into original content. Broadcasters’ practice in B&H is to purchase cheap and low quality content and shows, at the expense of their own production – with nearly all private televisions in the B&H market leaving them behind in this regard – which additionally damages the reputation and potential of public broadcasters, because audiences, citizens who pay subscription fees, are increasingly wondering what they are getting in return. In the case of BHRT, many will agree, that is very little.

10. How to redefine public services’ role and legitimacy in changed circumstances?

Only an institution that has institutional and production capacities, symbolic capital to represent the whole state of B&H, motivated leadership and employed professionals, can respond to the imperative to be a universal institution with diverse programs, to play a socially cohesive role and, through technological innovations and a good program of its own, to build its legitimacy and unquestionable position in society. The argument that there is no money and that there is no political will, which leads to a vicious circle of problems, cannot be justification for this situation. In the process of future redefining of roles and models of functioning of public services, the voice of others, not only politicians, must be heard. Several initiatives have already been launched in B&H and this practice needs to continue.