Throughout this essay I intend to look at the history of Public service broadcasting to gain an understanding of its significance and in order to analyse its relevance in today’s modern society. I will also be focusing on the arguments and evidence surrounding the end of public service broadcasting so that I can determine whether this claim is justified.
1. According to the Dictionary of Media and Communication Studies, the term public service broadcasting refers to any broadcasting system whose first duty is to a public within a democracy, serving to inform, educate and entertain, and to regard audience as constituting citizens, members of communities and individuals rather than merely consumers.
This system of public ownership has always been promoted on the basis that as a public resource it should include four important features; firstly it should be available to all in society irrespective of wealth or location; it should cater for all of the interests and tastes in society; it should provide citizens with the information and education that they need to contribute to enlightened public debate and for informed democratic participation; finally it should create what Scannell called a ‘common universe of discourse’ in a society.
By this he meant a sense of community and togetherness which help contribute to social cohesion. Certainly the last century has witnessed the importance of public service broadcasting. Particularly in Britain the BBC has played a significant role in educating and informing the population in current affairs, this is important in a democratic society as information is seen as a fundamental, universal right which should be accessible to all, especially in light of post-modern thinking which emphasises the relationship between knowledge and power.
The beginnings of Public Service Broadcasting within Britain can be traced back as far as 1922 when in this year the Post Office set up the British Broadcasting Company. It was originally set up as a co-operative of radio set manufacturers whose aim was to protect the business interests of companies who made broadcasting equipment. The decision was made that this service was to be financed via a licence fee which was to be paid by all those in possession of a radio set. The end of the war provided the best circumstances and support for the formation of the BBC.
The development of the public corporation depended on the rejection of market forces and a general acceptance of intervention. 3. In 1934 Beveridge argued; “in a free market economy consumers can buy only that which is offered to them, and that which is offered is not necessarily that which is most advantageous. It is that which appears to give the best prospect of profit to the producer”. Beverage was not alone in his attitude rather it was a view mirrored by many in society at this time.
In 1936 the introduction of television extended the influence of the BBC from merely radio broadcasting and this new medium meant that the BBC succeeded in maintaining a monopoly over British broadcasting. The foundations of public service broadcasting placed prominent emphasis on public duty, on providing for all, on informing, educating and entertaining. Problems however arose concerning the need for accountability on the part of the broadcasters with their need for a high degree of autonomy in order to carry out their work without undue political or other constraints.
As means of solving this issue, power was delegated to a broadcasting authority to run the service along the lines decreed by parliament. The aim was that it would ensure the broadcasting institution was ultimately accountable to parliament yet at the same time free from direct governmental control. This body of regulation was later succeeded by the Independent Television Commission in 1991. 4. In 1949 the first Committee on Broadcasting was set up, which included a Minority Report by Selwyn Lloyd.
In this report Lloyd stated “I believe that the only effective safeguard (against the dangers of monopolistic powers) is competition from independent sources. He went on to say “if people are to be trusted with the franchise, surely they should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to be educated or entertained in the evening…. as long as provision is made for those who wish to listen to classical music or plays ect. I see no reason why there should not be competition for listeners in the rest of the field. I much prefer to leave the rest to the freedom of choice rather than to ‘the brute force of monopoly'”.
The Labour government’s responses to this report however, was to lend support for the continuation of the monopoly. Reith (the BBC’s first director general) too was determined to avoid mediocrity which he believed would accompany freedom of choice. 5. In 1924 he wrote; “it is occasionally indicated to us that we are apparently setting out to give the public what we think they need not what they want, but few know what they want and very few what they need” Reith therefore believed that the duty and function of the BBC was primarily educative and that its purpose was to train ‘character’.
This however caused problems for the BBC particularly after 1940 with the growing notion that modern wars change the status of entertainment; leisure is seen as an aspect of ‘public morale’ and there was much agreement that more light music, comedy, crooning and jazz were justified by the immediacy of wartime demands. Attempts previously to introduce alternatives in broadcasting had always met with failure however the election of a conservative government in 1951 saw the start of a concerted campaign in favour of commercial television. Finally in 1954, following considerable lobbying the Television Act was passed.
This Act set up the Independent Television Authority which was designed to supervise a federal structure of commercially funded television companies. It was here that ITV was born and it was to rely solely on advertising for its revenue. Later there was also to be the creation of BBC two in 1964 and channel four in 1982, both were set up in order to extend the range of public service on offer and to cover areas and content not already occupied, predominantly providing for the minorities. The introduction of ITV was for Norman Collins of great importance.
He felt that the introduction of commercial broadcasting had brought about a revolution because it challenged the complacent pre-war conservatism of the BBC. He argued that the corporation was staffed by narrow minded middle class professional bureaucrats who had little sympathy for working class interests. ITV and the BBC both had their own separate sources of funding and this was seen as an important advantage. It meant that they would not have to chase the largest audience nor produce lowest-common-denominator programmes in order to please as many as possible.
Each broadcasting organisation could therefore pursue its programme policies without fear of a direct challenge to its sources of revenue. However it soon became apparent that this was not to be the case. The immediate popularity and novelty of ITV forced the BBC to review its output and made it aware of the need to survive in an increasingly competitive environment. From the very beginning ITV concentrated on providing ‘popular programmes’ preferring to focus on entertainment as opposed to education. 6. In 1958 the BBC saw its share of the audience dramatically decrease.
In the television ‘top ten’ ratings for the 18th September 1960 there was not a single BBC programme to be listed. Consequently it has been argued that the commercial competition changed the BBC in that it forced the corporation to consider public wants more seriously. 7. As one Daily Mail critic wrote; “the BBC will have to abandon the ivory towers for the beaches! ” Previously viewers had no programme choices and there was no question of who should obtain the licence fees, yet now this had all changed.
Arguably the introduction of Independent Television undermined the BBCs’ historical sense of privilege and security; it threatened the position of the BBC as the main instrument of broadcasting and also threatened its claims to the full licence fee. The pressure applied to public finances in many countries during the 1980s produced a turn against state monopolies and a trend in favour of markets. The economic crises experienced by western industrial nations led many of them to begin to deregulate their economies in the hope of stimulating competition and increasing business activity and employment.
8. Throughout this period public service broadcasting was compared unfavourably with the ‘real choice offered to consumers by a more effective market’. Numerous reports, government green papers and bills proposed to ‘set free broadcasters from the narrow constraints of control’ furthermore it was continuously argued that satellite, cable and a deregulated broadcasting system would be able to offer the public a greater choice of programmes more suitably in line with their wants through the competitive pressures of the market.
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