Susan Abbott
Publication Date
January 16, 2016

"Media developers and donors are taking a second look at public service broadcasting. Could it be that PSB, even with all its challenges and pitfalls, might offer a new path for opening up the media environment?"

This paper from the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) analyses the place of public service broadcasting (PSB) - television or radio that is publicly funded but independently operated in the public interest - in the information ecology, examining whether it can serve as a critical building block in a diverse media sector. The various definitions of PSB presented in the paper agree on its status and governance (independent public entity), funding (publicly funded), and mission/programming (serving the general public with programming that caters to all layers of society, including minorities and marginalised ones). For some, PSB comes down to values; a chart on page 5 of the paper outlines the BBC model, which is inspired by its values ("trust, audience, creativity, and respect", in the words of BBC's James Deane) and purpose.

Author Susan Abbott notes that, in the late 1990s, academics, pundits, government officials, and media leaders voiced their opinion that PSB was dying off due to to threats from market pressures, digitalisation and convergence, globalisation, the rapid spread of satellite technology, and the rise of mobile devices and internet-accessible news and entertainment programming. Despite skepticism about the future of PSB, "it continues to be a major focus of many media development efforts." The notion of publicly offered content in a variety of languages and perspectives is, as explained here, one of the reasons why PSB is needed as one of the elements of the media environment, especially given that sufficient pluralism or diversity of content is unlikely to be offered by commercial media providers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s rationale for supporting PSB is that it can make a major contribution to democratic development. "Fair news coverage, in which both good and bad things are reported about the governing and opposition parties, helps the electorate to reach an informed view of the quality of the candidates, and to keep governments accountable." Abbott points out that "[s]imply leaving state-run media to control the airwaves is not an option when it comes to democratizing media space."

Abbott presents several questions she sees as key to the debate within the media development community over the value and place of PSB in developing and transitioning countries. For example, are there alternative visions of PSB that would make sense in light of twenty-first-century challenges to the goals of supporting democratic media, and if so, what do they look like? Abbott discusses the conception that PSB has transitioned into an era of public service media (PSM), a term that more adequately captures the expanded range of services and platforms on which information, journalism, entertainment, and other communication is offered. The media development community should lend its voice to these debates, Abbott urges. Other questions to consider: What are the supporting institutions that ensure independence, and how do weak or transitional countries build and sustain such institutions? How do we analyse the level of public support for PSB and the government's political will to allow it to operate as an independent public entity? Abbott points out that "[m]ost media development programs operate in a situation where there is parallel transition of many aspects of a society that is formerly state controlled or part of an existing authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime. Against this backdrop the role of the state and the ability of broadcasters to have any degree of independence matters a great deal for media development."

Having discussed the nature of media transitions in post-communist Europe, Abbott explores the "BBC model" of PSB for media transition. "The amount of money collected through license fees, the enabling environment in which the BBC is situated, and its longstanding history and own period of institutionalization that has grown up in many ways with modern mass media and broadcasting practices give the BBC a somewhat privileged position that would be very hard for newly created PSBs to match." Abbott outlines a number of models and prescriptions that might be followed for PSB transitions around the world, including one set of proposed key attributes included in a chart on page 12. Standards put forward by development actors such as UNESCO are one source of ideas. Abbott points to UNESCO's Indicators of Media Development, as well as the results of UNESCO's evaluation of its programmes to support PSB. Yet "the sector as a whole lacks suitable frameworks for assessing and evaluating the democratic value of the news programs and packages that it supports. The development of such frameworks would be a major contribution to the sector and to strengthening media systems." That said, "[i]ndicators and metrics of success notwithstanding, there is no formula or step-by-step guide that a transitional country can follow that will necessarily lead to one outcome over another. Media systems, cultures, and transitional trajectories are wedded to the overall health of a country's political and economic situation."

Has there ever been a successful transition of a state-run media system into a viable PSB? Abbott shares examples from countries and regions around the world revealing various states of PSB success, asking questions such as: "Can PSB transitions really take place in countries where there has not been a reasonable and meaningful transition to democracy, with both political and economic reforms sufficiently stable and able to support an independent regulator, broadcaster, and environment of free expression and access to information?"

Abbott points to the need to assess the role that international donors play in influencing the development of a country's media system, and whether donor involvement is helpful in the first place. She cites the Open Society Foundations (OSF) as one of the organisations that has offered support in many countries around the world in the form of grants, technical assistance, research and analysis, and convening forums and workshops to bring together multiple stakeholders needed to jumpstart policy discussions about creating a viable PSB. Abbott cautions that, "[w]hile early entry into a transitional country may present the best opportunity for engagement, it is important to think through better strategies for ways that the media assistance community can stay engaged."

Reflecting further on questions related to the significance of PSB in a twenty-first century context and whether it still remains a valuable model for media development efforts, Deane of BBC Media Action has offered a series of questions: Why are we interested in PSB now? What do we expect PSB to deliver that others wouldn't? What is PSB's role in society? What does the debate about PSB tell us about media development? For what purpose are we doing this?

Looking to the future, Abbott argues that PSB will require "adaptation, innovation, the bringing together of so-called legacy media with new media and ICTs [information and communication technologies], and - as many PSB experts have indicated - the need to re-imagine PSB in a digital age." She observes that, while the technology of media has changed significantly since the early days of PSB, the rationales for supporting a national PSB have largely remained unchanged. In short, she concludes that media development donors, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and academics should care about PSB and its place among the priorities for media assistance aimed at increasing and improving the free flow of information and ideas.


Email from Mark Nelson to The Communication Initiative on February 16 2016.