Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prisoners of Broadcasting

Last Thursday I flew to Helsinki for a reception of the Helsingin Sanomat Foundation, one of the funders of the StrangerFestival. The event started with a seminar on the role of public service in public broadcasting. The discussion on a role of a public service goes to the heart of the Nordic model so it was not a surprise that
a) the seminar gathered all the Finnish big shots in Finnish media
b) the discussion turned very heated when some commercial actors threw punches on YLE, the national public broadcaster

Helsingin Sanomat Foundation picked the subject at a convenient time (and the newspaper continued stirring things in today's paper). YLE has gone threw some rocky waters over the last year with license fee income dropping dramatically, YLE signing an exclusive deal with the American HBO channel and the energetic CEO changing people, reducing staff and increasing subcontracting. But at the same time YLE has grown its market share and is still by far the most trusted news broadcaster. YLE’s turmoil has not been helped by the gossip journalism around the CEO’s private life.

The discussion was bizarre and then again not. When anyone raises discussion around public services, the social democratic jargon kicks in and people start referring to democracy and minorities in a conveniently blurry manner that makes it difficult for the opposite side to continue. Personally I found it a shame – as a supporter of quality public broadcasting - that the argument by many of the defenders of YLE was more or less the following: we need YLE because YLE is needed because YLE provides crucial services and because YLE plays a key role in building a democratic welfare state and because politicians want support the system. This circle argument avoids all specification and making choices.

Even if it would save you in a panel, this argumentation is bad for YLE in the long run. It disregards the problems YLE has in reaching out to younger audiences but also the quality work that is done at YLE in the fields of Finnish drama, culture and current affairs. But I feel the problems go even deeper.

The roles of public broadcasters are currently outlined as educating, informing and entertaining. All these tasks allow the audience to do is the take the message in, enjoy and learn. They exclude all interactive tasks and are by and large the reason why young audiences are zapping to other channels. With the technology and resources public broadcasters have, they could do much better. One could try and let some air into the tasks and think for instance of words like empower, represent, mobilize, voice out, help and encourage. But this would mean radical changes such as opening the conglomerates called YLE, listening to the audiences more, doing programmes in collaboration with stakeholders and acting as a guide through user-generated content.

All and all, I remain a firm supporter of public service media. But I am not sure about the broadcasting.

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