19 November 1993 - 21 November 1993

The Future of Public Service Broadcasting

Chair: Sir Paul Fox CBE

We met at a time when popular awareness of mushrooming technological opportunities in broadcasting, alongside a good deal of unease (at least in some of the countries represented) about standards and social effects, tended to put the future of public-service broadcasting on political agendas. The particular circumstance, in Britain, that the Charter of the British Broadcasting Corporation was soon up for renewal (or change, or abandonment) gave the issue especially sharp focus. We did not uniformly manage to avoid the risks of BBC-centred discussion, but participants from outside Britain generously tolerated this both as being a natural test case and because of the BBC’s historic salience amid public-broadcasting institutions world-wide.

We recognised at the outset that technology had irreversibly moved the concept and justification for public arrangements away from necessary national-interest management of a scarce resource - usable frequencies in the radio spectrum. The ability now to provide a vast range of channels - through more sophisticated use of the spectrum, satellites and cable - meant that the physical ability to distribute programmes was no longer a major limitation, and accordingly no longer the key dimension of the industry’s form. The pace and scale of change in general availability of channels, and the precise patterns of consumer response to the change (and to other fresh developments like direct payment and the possibility of interactive use) were hard to forecast in the near and medium term; planning should therefore not be panicked into hasty conclusions; but long-term transformation seemed certain. There was an immense and still-growing demand for programme material, and less and less reason why the structures and agencies for providing this need coincide with those for providing channels.

A mega-channel industry did not, we were warned, guarantee wide and satisfactory diversity of content under commercial motivation alone; that motivation might as easily generate repetitiveness and homogenised concentration upon what were perceived as mass-audience preferences. At the same time, technological advances - affecting the means of programme production as well as channel availability - could enhance economy and flexibility in generating material. In the round these developments, it was fervently argued, should be seen as offering fresh opportunity rather than greater threat to public-service broadcasting.

Against this background, many participants believed that there were particular areas of content which would remain especially apt for public-service provision, and at risk if that provision were abandoned - religious programmes, for example; educational ones of various kinds; probably good-quality drama (though here as elsewhere we found no ready formula for assessing the justification for public provision of minority arts open to charges of elitism). We noted that fields like sport and mainstream feature films would be provided dependably enough by commercial provision. Most of us, however, seemed convinced that deliberately to narrow public service provision to specific fields judged uncommercial (even if that judgment could be accurately made) would leave public services increasingly unviable in terms of interest, confidence, weight and skills - the public-service contribution could not be effectively made on a “residual” basis. More generally, arguments were strongly voiced that public-service provision (which, we were reminded, was not automatically coterminous with publicly-funded or publicly-run provision, though we never quite succeeded in defining it tautly) had a necessary and valuable role in underpinning the transmission of national culture and values for the cohesion of society - a need which, provided minority outlooks and traditions were catered for in a balanced way, might be of growing importance amid contemporary social pressures. Public-service broadcasting was more likely than purely commercial broadcasting to recognise the viewer as citizen and not just as customer (still less, as some thought commercial provision might see matters, as product delivered to advertisers). In much the same vein, it was suggested that the public-service contribution included also in practice - though the force of this differed widely as between national broadcasting traditions - the setting of quality benchmarks and professional standards and perhaps the role of leadership in some areas of development, influencing and indeed underpinning the industry as a whole.

Why, the sceptic asked, should broadcasting be regarded as special in such ways? - after all, the provision of other media like books and newspapers was sustained in the pattern of national life, to standards generally accepted or at least tolerated, without public input. Because of the exceptional immediacy and power of broadcasting, the response was offered, and because of the commercially- unattractive cost of some nationally-desirable elements like high-quality drama; perhaps also because in at least some of our countries the fact of public broadcasting - whatever its abstract rationale - was by now woven into the fabric of national life.

Patterns of public-service funding varied considerably. The Europeans among us were impressed by the extent to which voluntary individual donation was forthcoming in support of United States stations; but we heard that this precarious basis both inhibited planning and engendered a doubtfully-healthy preoccupation with fund-raising - “the tin-cup syndrome”. It was in any event hard to believe that in other national cultures such funding could ever be generated in anything like the amounts needed. The attractions of a licence-fee system (perhaps index-linked, and perhaps also operated with rather more discretionary flexibility than in the current British system) were much emphasised, especially as insulating funding from the year-by-year political and judgmental pressures of ordinary public-expenditure processes. At the same time, there was general recognition of the need for public-service corporations - especially as their market share almost inevitably declined in the mega-channel environment - to widen their funding base entrepreneurially, for example by marketing still further their programming output and their rich archives (though vigorous views were expressed against suggestions that the BBC needed, or ought, to seek advertising revenue). In parallel, they needed to reinforce acceptance of their entitlement (under challenge, some thought, more from competitors and doctrinaire free-marketeers than from the general public) to continued “core” funding from public sources by demonstration of value-for-money efficiency. Ready measurement of this was sometimes difficult, but careful audit and steady pressure on costs - for example by “internal-market” arrangements allowing producers to shop around, including bringing in services from outside - had a part to Play.

We wrestled uncomfortably and inconclusively with the general problem of regulation in broadcasting. No-one welcomed a no-holds-barred free-for-all (though one or two suspected that in time the vast range of channels and the near-impossibility of blocking off access to them, whether in national or other compartments, would lead inexorably in this direction). But we found no clear consensus, even within national groups, about what criteria, what mechanisms and what sanctions, if any, would be reasonable and durably effective in defence, for example, of fairness and privacy, and of commonly-desired constraints on the presentation of sex, obscenity and violence. Public expectations in these matters were not static, and devices for satisfying them might similarly have to vary from time to time. But one constant feature was, or ought to be, a concern that judgment and action - for example on the social impact of programmes, or on public attitudes - be underpinned by cool, substantial and continuous research.

The discussion to which this led of how public-service broadcasting should be governed highlighted widely different patterns between countries. In the United States, for example, structures for oversight had largely a local focus; in most other countries they were more centralised. In Germany the supervisory structure had a membership at least in part politically based; in Britain, by contrast, there was a constantly-asserted desire to distance controlling mechanisms from political affiliation or influence (however imperfect the insulation might occasionally appear under particular stresses). We detected, without neatly resolving, an inherent tension between the desire that control structures be detached from pressures perceived as improper and the desire that they should be seen to have a basis of popular legitimacy and ready accountability. Whatever structures were used, there needed to be sustained effort to demonstrate responsiveness and to foster two-way communication with viewers and listeners.

With every allowance for the fact that our participation included few natural critics or sceptics of the public-service approach to broadcasting, it was striking how clearly there emerged - and deepened as our discussions continued - a general sense that the public-service element could and should look to the future, amid all the technological and structural changes in uncertain evolution, confidently and eagerly rather than defensively or apologetically. It might well be, we thought, that the institutions themselves ought to be projecting more energetically to national citizenries the distinctive merits of the public-service contribution (especially in the conditions of unsettled societies) and the notable value that public investment in it, whether by licence-fee or otherwise, conferred in terms of both individual and national benefit.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Sir Paul Fox CBE
Chairman, Stepgrades Consultants


Sir Samuel Brittan
Assistant Editor, Financial Times

Professor Marilyn Butler
Rector Designate, Exeter College, Oxford

Sir Robin Day
Television and radio journalist

Mr Peter Fiddick
Editor, Television (Royal Television Society-RTS) and Research (Market Research Society)

Mr Mark Fisher MP
Member of Parliament, (Labour), Stoke-on-Trent

Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox KCMG KCVO
A Governor, BBC                                                              

Sir Terence Heiser GCB
Chairman, General Advisory Council, BBC

Ms Patricia Hodgson
Director of Policy and Planning BBC
Lady Howe JP
Chairman, Broadcasting Standards Council

Mr Jeremy Isaacs
General Director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Mrs Eve Keatley
Honorary Secretary, The Sandford St Martin Trust, London

Mr Hayden Phillips CB
Permanent Secretary, Department of National Heritage

Mr Robert Phillis
Deputy Director-General, British Broadcasting Corporation & Managing Director, World Service

Rev Canon Peter Pilkington
Chairman, Broadcasting Complaints Commission

The Rt Hon Tim Renton MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Mid-Sussex

Dr John Roberts
Warden, Merton College, Oxford

Mr John Simpson CBE
Foreign Affairs Editor BBC-TV

Mr Anthony Smith CBE
President, Magdalen College, Oxford

Mr John Tusa        
Chairman, London News Radio

Sir Brian Young     
Director General, Independent Broadcasting Authority (formerly Independent Television Commission) (1970-82)

Hon Pierre Juneau PC OC
President, International Centre for Public Broadcasting, Quebec

Mr Michael McEwen
Senior Vice-President, Radio Services, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)

Mr Bernard Ostry OC

Ms Kealy Wilkinson
Principal, Kealy Wilkinson Enterprises Inc. and Kealy Wilkinson and Associates (broadcasting and communications consulting firms)

Mme Geneviève Guicheney
Member, Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, Paris

Ambassador Karl-Günther von Hase
President, Anglo-German Association

Herr Dietrich Schwarzkopf
Vice President, Franco-German-Belgian TV Cultural Channel, - Arte (Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne), Strasbourg

Senhor Antonio H Diniz Goncalves
Vice President, Radiotelevisao Portuguesa, Lisbon

Ms Chloe W Aaron
Television producer; Executive Director, Twentieth Century Fund’s Task Force on the Future of Public Television (Report published July 1993)

The Hon Gerald L Baliles
Partner, Administrative Law and Business Practice Groups, Hunter & Williams, Richmond, Va

Mr Henry P Becton
WGBH Educational Foundation: President and General Manager

The Hon Richard W Carlson
President and CEO, Corporation for Public Broadcasting

Mr James A Fellows
President and Board member, Central Educational Network, Chicago

Mr William J McCarter
President and CEO: WTTW/Channel 22/Chicago and its National Television Production Center; WFMT-FM

Professor Willard D Rowland Jr
Professor and Dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Colorado, Boulder

Ms Ruth Seymour
Broadcaster, General Manager and Program Director, KCRW, National Public Radio station, Southern California