Is public broadcasting in Europe necessary?


Poland’s new government has put the country’s public broadcasting under its direct control. This has triggered protest in the country, while political parties, governments, the European Commission and media all over Europe have voiced their objection. Sanctions are being considered. All of this leads to a reflection on public broadcasting in Europe, especially in television, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

Most European countries enjoy high quality public media that emphasize their independence from governments and political parties. However, in the long run they are still subject to political influence through appointments to their various governing bodies.

Financing for public broadcasting in Europe comes from the government, from mandatory household contributions, or from some combination of the two. The mandatory contributions are required regardless of whether the viewers use public broadcasting or not. Sometimes advertising also provides funding. In some countries advertising is restrained as a matter of principle. Other countries, however, are happy to finance some of their costs through advertising.

The basic idea behind public broadcasting is that it should provide a high quality offering of journalism, documentaries, cultural programming and entertainment. It should be independent of political and commercial interests.

In many European countries public broadcasters were the only providers of television programming for years. They were the most important sources for news and entertainment. Gradually, other providers appeared. These days, television is increasingly being displaced by new media. The importance of TV has begun to decrease. However, public television still retains a big share of the audience.

In some countries, public broadcasters bear the stigma of political influence, even if most of the people in the governing bodies are not connected to any party. Moreover, the justification for the mandatory household contributions has become shaky, since it does not depend on whether the viewers watch public programming. It is a remnant from a time of when public broadcasters held a monopoly.

The other argument for the contributions is that these broadcasters often play the main role in financing local productions. Being independent (or partially independent) of advertising sales, they can sponsor many more projects, including those that are not commercially viable. These include interviews with writers and artists, as well as social documentaries and analyses.

Governments like to maintain institutions even if they become unnecessary. Public broadcasting in Europe is becoming a relic of the past, though it has mostly maintained its high quality.

Should not the provision of an independent offer of news, documentaries and entertainment be left to competition between other providers then? Costs could be saved and public broadcasting privatized. This would end the difficult discussion on its independence and the widespread – and in some instances, justified – suspicion that it is an organ of government propaganda.

The question for all European countries would remain: Can commercial competition provide a level of quality and diversity that is the same as or even higher than what is found in public broadcasting? It should be possible. Nevertheless, an ever increasing number of users are likely to look for such content on the internet or on store-bought discs. It is a debate worth having.

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