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5 March, 2018 00:00 00 AM
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Future of public service broadcasting

Gavin Esler

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  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. 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?

The writer is a British journalist

and television presenter

 

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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