Guest post: Let the media drown

When an invite to attend a seminar on the challenges facing “the media” recently arrived in my inbox, I hastily sent it on to a friend of mine who has made the move – over a number of years – from advertising executive to digital entrepeneur. His reply was short and to the point: “Let the media drown”. I’ve stolen his phrase for this blog post, because it ties in directly with my own area of research. To what extent are the waters rising around the feet of our traditional broadcasting institutions, and do we need to care?

As it happens, my particular area of interest is in the challenges faced by British Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs). PSBs are, of course, different to other broadcasters in that they have a defined responsibility to provide public value. Different broadcasters articulate this responsibility in different ways: The BBC has a set of 6 public purposes which are included in their charter, and which inform all of the corporation’s activities; Channel 4′s remit has been defined by law, and gets changed periodically when new broadcasting or communications acts are passed. The current BBC charter tasks the BBC with Sustaining Citizenship and Civil Society, while Channel 4 have a responsibility, since 2010, to “promote measures intended to secure that people are well informed and motivated to participate in society in a variety of ways” (Digital Economy Act, 2010). Michael Tracey, in his overarching study of late 20th Century PSBs identifies Serving the Public Sphere as one of the core principles which underpin all PSBs (1998, 28-30). (Incidentally, S4C, the Welsh-language fourth channel that I’m involved with has a remit defined by statute, like Channel 4 – but it is far more narrowly defined, and makes no reference to any overarching duty to serve the public sphere.)

When commercial media companies fall prey to a changing world, it’s of little concern to us. We accept that the rise and fall of multinational corporations is part of the natural order of the market; if they fail to adapt to changing market conditions, it’s a matter for their shareholders, rather than the broader public. But if we accept the argument that has dominated British media policy since the 1920s – that PSBs have an essential role to play in the public sphere – to what extent can we allow PSBs to drown?

At the moment, our PSBs seem to be in fairly rude health. Individual institutions or services might be faring better than others, but the fear that was prevalent 5 to 10 years ago – that “the internet” would destroy “the media” – seems to have subsided. I attended the Edinburgh Television Festival last August, which was themed around the concept of “TV+”. Each delegate was given a pamphlet produced by Deloitte analysing recent trends in British TV viewing. The message within the pamphlet, and the overwhelming feeling amongst festival delegates, was that they had weathered the internet storm. TV viewership was rising, not falling; digital technologies were complementing TV, not challenging it; convergence had driven people to TV, not away from it.

These are my own personal observations rather than something that I’ve researched in detail, but a recent keynote given by James Bennett at a conference in Canterbury Christ Church University suggested a certain level of complacency at the BBC which chimes with my experience in Edinburgh. (Bennett’s paper is awaiting publication, and I’m aware of the dangers of quoting (or mis-quoting) from memory – which I will seek to negate by drawing your attention to the fact that its publication is imminent, and that it will form a chapter in in Derek Johnson, Derek Kompare & Avi Santos’ collection Intermediaries due out with NYU Press later this year).  Bennett quoted from an interview with a member of BBC Vision staff which expressed relief at the introduction of the iPlayer – a familiar, linear method of delivering TV content. It is a sentiment that is echoed in Bennett’s paper by BBC Director General Mark Thompson. One of Bennett’s conclusions was that the BBC – on an institutional level if not always an individual one – sees online media as a continuation or an expansion of the traditional broadcasting model. Without being overly-reductionist (and taking care to emphasise that this is my reading, and not necessarily Bennett’s) new media is about delivering old content in new ways; the BBC is happy to expand into new areas, as long as the essential relationship between producer and audience remains fixed.

To what extent does this complacency matter? If, like some within the TV industry believe, the supposed war between new and old media is over, then we need not worry. A passive audience will continue to demand no more than television programmes (or radio programmes, or print journalism) made available through an ever-greater number of devices. The demand by government that PSBs serve the public sphere will continue to be fulfilled by a traditional broadcast model, albeit one which offers increased choice, diversity and flexibility. In short, online is about doing old things in new ways.

The BBC is a huge organisation that employs thousands of people, and I’m sure that there are a great many who don’t see online media in this way. But I would venture as far as to say that this remains the dominant view within the TV industry (which is the medium that I happen to be most familiar with). My own experience of working on a new media strategy for S4C has thrown up a number of experiences which reflect Bennett’s findings at the BBC.

Is this necessarily a problem? In a very simple sense, it will become a clear and unavoidable problem for the BBC if an obsession with a linear, top-down broadcast model alienates the audience. As people spend more and more of their time engaging with media which gives them the opportunity to do more than just passively consume, they might get bored of the BBC’s top down model. In this scenario, people stop watching Eastenders, and start spending their evenings writing fan fiction about Ian Beale, forcing the BBC to sit up and take notice. At the moment, this seems an unlikely scenario, and as long as sufficient numbers of people are doing both things (or just watching Eastenders), the BBC can carry on as it is – creating great content for people to consume.

Where I think the greater issue lies is with our public broadcasting institutions’  commitment to fulfil a remit which makes a meaningful contribution to society. Informing people about what’s going on in the world – whether that’s done through news and current affairs or soap operas – is a fundamentally important part of their commitment to serve the public sphere, but it only goes part of the way. Indeed, the BBC itself recognises that to effectively fulfil its remit, it needs to encourage people to participate in the public sphere, not simply be told about its goings on. Dig down into the BBC’s Purpose Priorites for Sustaining citizenship and civil society and you will find a commitment to “Encourage conversation and debate about news, current affairs and topical issues” as well as “Enable audiences to access, understand and interact with different types of media”. The BBC knows that moving beyond the linear broadcast model is an important part of fulfilling its remit, but struggles to understand how to do this in practice. Interaction between producer and audience is age-old, but remains confined to the editorial straight-jacket of the radio phone-in or TV vox pops. What’s interesting about the BBC’s public purposes is that as well as serving the public sphere, it also sees itself as having a responsibility to “Stimulate creativity and cultural excellence”.  I suspect that the “cultural excellence” has a tendency to win out, meaning that creativity is stimulated, as long as it conforms to traditional notions of quality – that is, we want to foster the next generation of creative professionals, but are less interested in the amateur.

Where PSBs fall short is that they doesn’t see the natural link between both of these public purposes. As David Gauntlett has argued, creativity is valuable not only because it creates cutural artefacts, but because the process of creating strengthens social bonds, provides the creator with a sense of meaning, and contributes to overall happiness. If PSBs want to encourage people to engage with one another, or with the world around them, the creative process is key. Likewise, when PSBs think about stimulating creativity, the natural end point of that process shouldn’t necessarily be “cultural excellence”. Cultural excellence is a valuable by-product of creativity, but isn’t necessarily the most important or desirable outcome.

The point of this post is not to find fault with the BBC specifically. As it’s the largest of our PSBs it provides more examples for me to use to illustrate my points – it also happens that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to draw upon James Bennett’s BBC-specific work to support some of my own (fairly anecdotal) perceptions of PSBs. But my central argument is that the attitudes discussed here dominate thinking about Public Service Broadcasting in the UK, and that issues which are illustrated by BBC-specific examples certainly exist within other institutions. My own work with S4C has involved rehearsing many of the arguments in this post, and trying to influence a broad strategic context which would push PSB in the right direction.

And this remains the real challenge for the PSBs themselves. Understanding that participation and creativity have an intrinsic value is relatively simple, yet remains an important first step. Defining a role for the institution which moves away from the traditional broadcast model is much more complex. Funding pressure, audience metrics, public value tests, compliance, and an entrenched working culture are all significant barriers to change. Public media may not be drowning just yet, but the waters are slowly rising. A move away from being exclusively producer-comissioner-distributors to taking on the role of facilitators is an essential part of ensuring that our PSBs are not lost below the waves.

Dyfrig Jones is a lecturer in media at Bangor University. He also sits on the S4C Authority, and Chaired the Authority’s New Media Forum. The S4C New Media Forum’s interim report can be found here. Dyfrig is writing in a personal capacity, and his views do not represent the views of S4C. Follow him on Twitter: @dyfrig

Photo by Flickr user TimboDon. Some rights reserved under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 licence.

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