Thursday, 9 July 2009

Second Lives. Rethinking Research on Public Service Media

Some time ago I attended an inspiring conference dealing with 'public service media (PSM), participation, partnership and media development'. It brought together scholars and some practitioners, too, mostly from Europe, to brainstorm about the future of PSM.

Sneaking into a working group well on its way, I entered just in time to hear the presenter say: "I need to begin by repeating what my distinguished colleagues have already said: I love PSB (public service broadcasting)!" He then went on dissecting dissecting the notion of the public sphere and suggesting several theoretical modifications.

United We Stand

As a European media scholar I recognize the discourse and the sense of camaraderie from numerous occasions. Such a sentiment of alliance between scholars and the institution of PSB has even said to have contributed to the academic popularity of hard core normative theoretical paradigm in Europe, as first laid out by
Juergen Habermas (1962) in "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere". The idea of a necessity of a democratic public sphere was relevant in defending the public broadcasting ethos in the commercializing media markets in the late 1980s and 1990s.

I salute the principle above (demorcacy enhanced by a -- mediated -- public sphere). I honor any sense of true engagement in scholarship, as it's to rare indeed. I also understand that a scholarly commitment to the public service ideal is still going strong, prompted by the fierce competition for audiences, within a media market and across markets, both geographically speaking and in terms of different media.

As the former CEO of the Danish public broacaster (DR), Christian Nissen, has summed it up: mass markets do no longer exist; the socio-cultural climate is fragmented and individualised; and globalisation in the media landscape is a fact. (He talks about Europe but this surely applies to other parts of the world, too).

And, as for instance the Norwegian media scholar Trine Syvertsen has noted, audiences are no longer only citizens and consumers, but customers and players -- and content producers. The current economic situation has shown the fragility of commercial media, but hasn't freed more public money for public media. In this brave new word, PSB must radically rethink its mission when transforming itself into PSM.

In many (Western) European countries the PSB organisations have been in the forefront of digital development. While they led that bandwagon by developing infrastructure, that was all they got; there was little money left for proper, innovative content development. Also, the rights for old PSB institutions to be present in 'new' media platforms has been restricted in several countries, or at least fiercely debated in many others. (Such debate, initiated by commercial media, is going strong in Finland as we speak, coupled with the age old critique of the licence fee as the financing model, see a short

At the same time, Karol Jakubowicz (one of the most prominent European public service scholar-practitioners) and other scholars and PSB practitioners
have strongly argued that in order to survive, public service media need to mean public service broadcasting plus all the relevant platforms plus web2.0 (social media).

In the current stormy weather for PSM, a survival strategy, or two, is thus very much needed (whether in terms of policy support, popular support, content mission, other special remits...), and scholars can surely help in suggesting scenarios and providing empirical evidence (or counter-evidence) of related and affecting trends. But given the complexity of the challenges, I'm not sure that 'loving public service broadcasting' is the most fruitful starting point.

Love Needs Not to Be Blind

Loving public service is like loving democracy: the theories are plentiful, mostly beautiful (and necessary) but the reality is always more messy and contradictory. And it's those latter, concrete, empirical aspects (such as policy or financing questions; or institutional practices) that receive relatively little attention from European scholars, compared to the re-theorisation of the core idea.

(Although just learned about a conference addressing mainly the financing part, in CAMRI, University of Westminster, this Oct).

It might be useful for policy-oriented scholars or organisational analysts to expand the interesting research done so far about European regulatory models and approaches to PSB and new media, to map concrete explorations, experiences and innovative solutions outside the Fortress Europe.

But even more poignantly, the meager academic contribution is evident regarding the very re-definition of what we mean by public media. There are only very few truly alternative visions to the existing traditional, nation-bound, centralised, all-around, full-service institution. In other words, I have never heard one European scholar date to suggest that perhaps nation-bound, conventional PS model could at least partly be substituted with something else.

I had to move from Finland to the US to see this. I had always thought that the public media in the States (PBS, NPR) was a caricature of the European model; maybe alternative to commercial networks but exclusive and elitist. Ignorant me.

Despite the the immense commercialisation and concentration of the markets there are many, many interesting and vibrant examples of community and local old and new media. Some NYC-based journalists, working for one of the big weekly newsmagazines, recently told me they get their real news from their neighbourghood weekly newspaper. And as for the bigger institutions, especially NPR has been able to hang on and provide alternatives, also online.

It has be also understood that some media are no longer nation-bound but either local, or, issue-driven, or, transnational, borderless. BBC World or the regional Finnish YLE radio news are great endeavours but do not exactly cater represent diverse voices or new approaches for diverse audiences.

I have begun to think that maybe European big and stiff PSMs could learn something from the grassroots. And, to my surprise, I seem not to be the only one, as the European Parliament has begun to see the potential, wanting to revive community media to support European civil society (see also the summary of their study on the state of the art of community media in Europe). Now we need scholars for independent analyses and innovative suggestions (or at least, taking part in them).

Second Lives of Public Media Scholars

In sum: The idea endorsed by most by public media scholars and practitioners (and some policy makers) in Europe seem to be that public service organisations should become like the virtual world Second Life: a state-of-the-art, open source, (greatly) user-generated forum that entertains but educates and informs (and serves educational organisations, governments, non-profits), even may do some business.

But at the same time, the dominant discourses seem to indicate, this kind of PSM would still be a kind of an avatar to the existing PSB system, remit, policies, institutional structures, and so on.

Now it's the high time that public media scholars create new avatars, descend their ivory towers, leave the Habermasian bourgeois cafes and BBC fan clubs, and start to take roles of public intellectuals. Not only as lovers of PSB, but lovers of diverse 'counter-commercial' media. The adoration for public service cannot entail institutions but their mandates -- can those mandates be spread out, shared, networked and 'crowd-sourced' somehow? Or how to ensure true sustainability of the PS values of access to, and diversity of, mediated contents, and their unifying, engaging aspects?

The task will not be easy: As a prominent British PS scholar Georgina Born has demonstrated in her recent essay, there exists a certain declassement of academics vis-a-vis think tanks and consultancy businesses. In my mind, the only way to gain legitimacy is to provide fresh, new ideas and true (researched) alternatives. Some may even be wild scenarios. The important thing is, as my heroes the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu & Zygmunt Bauman have noted about the role of social sciences: it is already a great deed to show that alternatives exist to things that seem inevitable. In this case, both to the fully commercial media, and to the PSB as we knew it in Europe last century.

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