Public broadcasters at crossroads in Prague

photo:  (Radio Prague)

Public television and radio broadcasters have seen their traditional dominance in delivering news and entertainment crumble in the new multimedia, multi-platform environment. And the challenge is not just coming from local commercial rivals but also big global players entering the media arena. Public broadcasters from across Europe got together last week in Prague to take stock of where they are on the market and where they should be going.


In the beginning was the word; in the early 20th century it was broadcast on public radio and a few decades later with pictures on television, first by public broadcasters and then a mix of public and commercial outfits.

But in the last decade there has been an explosion of broadcasters of words, text, and images. They range from the individual with personal tweets, Facebook offerings, and videos on Youtube to the global corporations such as Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Apple.

Public service radio broadcasters with their main target audiences in their home country are situated somewhere in the middle. Most have, to different degrees, embraced the Internet, social media, and digital platforms but they are fighting as never before to be heard and seen in the sea of content washing over even the most media unsavvy citizens. And while the public broadcasters vaunt their trust, standards, and missions, with funding mainly from license fees or the state, there is always pressure to curb costs.

This is the environment in which around 200 public broadcasting bigwigs from more than 50 countries met in Prague last week to swop notes on their progress and finetune their strategy for the future at the 74th general assembly of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The EBU is the biggest grouping of public service radio and television broadcasters in the world with the event jointly hosted by Czech Radio and Czech Television.

No captive audience

From some of the broadcasters there was news how they have taken up the challenge to be relevant as just one of many media rather than the first and almost only choice for the population as they were in the past. This from the director general of Swedish Radio, Cilla Benkö: “I think we have to face the fact that in this global digital competition it is much harder to find us. It is much harder to know what we actually provide. We have a new generation growing up that don’t necessarily have public service [broadcasting] with their mother milk. So for us there is a lot of attention now on how we actually get the right content that we provide to the right audience, at the right time, to the right platform, because there is really no point that we spend millions and millions of Swedish crowns doing terrific radio broadcasts if they don’t reach the audience that we want to reach.”

That is a mindset that some other public service broadcasters could probably learn from. The Swedish radio broadcaster also looks fairly advanced when it comes to getting its content over to the widest public possible. Cilla Benkö again: “Parts of your audience you will always be able to reach through terrestrial broadcasting. Some part of your audience will never come to you through terrestrial broadcasting. Take news for instance, you have to do specific news on Instagam if you want to reach an 18-year-old. An 18-year-old will never look for news on the terrestrial broadcasting system for instance. And you have to be able to know a little more about your audience, age group is not enough. You have to know to know about their needs, about their behaviour, about their social life. And I think you have to be extremely active on social media to reach some of them and you have to do specific things targeting the audience on smartphones because they have other needs. So in that sense we are going to repackage our stuff a bit. We are going to rebrand some stuff and we are going to produce some specific material only probably for the smartphone audience. So in that sense we are searching in a way.”

Facebook interaction

And the embrace of social media, while still seeking to maintain the accuracy and trustworthiness, is also an eye opener. “We are very active on social media by putting our content there and also by producing content together with the audience. Social media is an excellent way of inviting the audience into your journalistic work before you even get started. So you don’t just produce a story and put it there, you go out with a subject as a hashtag, for instance, on twitter. You ask for input from the audience and you start to create your story together with them. It has been extremely successful.”

In one instance an urban radio station produced a short Youtube video asking for input on a programme about racism from the victims. There were around 7,000 responses and a live broadcast from a youth centre was one of the spin-offs. But multiplying your platform presence is only part of the battle. One of the phrases coming out of the general assembly in Prague was “content is king.” And here public broadcasters are facing a growing challenge, mostly from US giants, who as seeking to corner content from around the world and cash in on it.

The EBU’s media director and chair of one of the assembly debates about programming content is Jean Philippe de Tender: “We have very strong local players at hand who connect very well with the audience today. However, there is a major threat because we see that media which were traditionally locally governed, locally owned, with local production and big local output is now shifting towards global. There are big players with a lot of money who often don’t come from the media industry, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. They all shift towards the media market and they start to define how globally the media market will start to look like. Today you have a radio button in your car but I am not quite sure that in the future car there will be a radio button. There might just be a Spotify button or an Internet button and then perhaps, you know, Deezer [the web based music streaming service] might be the first radio station at hand.”

De Tender says that this looming threat is not yet perceived where it should be. “We need to have everybody realise that that shift is happening. I see that locally, governments are very much involved and interested in media, which is a good sign. But then the debate is far too local. It is about, well, there is too much entertainment, or we pay too much for sports rights, and they don’t see the bigger picture and the bigger context and that is happening today. We need to act urgently and be agile and we need to put that in context and convince everybody about the importance of local media. It is local media that will define local culture, that will report about local news, what is happening in your country or region and that is definitely something we need to defend, that media need to defend, and local stakeholders need to defend. “

As regards content, European broadcasters present a very mixed picture as regards what volume of programming is made in-house, how much in joint ventures between them or with private companies, and how much to shop out to independent companies. France Television, the public television broadcaster produces news and sport in house but all of its other programming is commissioned from outside companies. RTBF, the French language broadcaster in Belgium, produces around 80-90 percent of its content, in house. Czech Television says this year it expects around 22 percent of production from outside producers, the same amount as last year.

BBC revolution

“There are big players with a lot of money who often don’t come from the media industry, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook.”

Then there is the BBC whose current model is for 50 percent of its content to be in house, a quarter in joint ventures with independent companies, and the remaining quarter is up for grabs to competition between in house and outside offers. But that model is set to change with a proposal to create a separate stand alone subsidiary, BBC Studios, which would compete to provide programmes for the BBC but also be open to make progammes for other clients. One of the main arguments for change is that some of the best programme making talent around currently feels frustrated that they have only limited outlets for their skills within the BBC programming framework and are therefore being snapped up by the big US companies or independent production companies. The proposed BBC change is being watched very closely, not just by private companies but also by other European broadcasters.

“There is really no point that we spend millions and millions of Swedish crowns doing terrific radio broadcasts if they don’t reach the audience that we want to reach.”

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 01.07.2015

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