by David Nostbakken PhD
I shall start with a word of appreciation to the Government of the Netherlands, and in particular to the Minister for Development Cooperation, Jan Pronk, and the State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, Aad Nuis. They have recognized that the report Our Creative Diversity is not just another weighty tome to be filed away with dozens of others on the issue of culture and development.1
It is not only a rich source of reflection but - as the chairman, Javier Pérez de Cuellar states in his introduction a call to action in a number of priority areas where progress is possible. I emphasize the latter, where progress is possible, because of the twin dangers which confront us when addressing the challenges of a media-rich world. On the one hand, the very complexity of the issues may paralyze our action; or lead us up blind alleys in the search for solutions which are neither practicable nor feasible. On the other, the sheer speed of change may overtake our best intentions, unless we act now in these selected priority areas where progress is possible.
In reviewing the report Our Creative Diversity, from the perspective of the communicator, one cannot escape being struck immediately by the impact of modern means of communication on the values, symbols, rituals and institutions of society, which make up its culture.
Culture is communication; and communication is culture
Numerous scholars have recognized this reality. George Gerbner of the Annenburg School of Communications was one of the first to describe the influence of modern mass media and in particular television in creating our own cultural myths.3 It is a defining influence of who we are. When one's own cultural myths are undermined or delegitimized in this medium, violence is not an uncommon reaction.
Neil Postman, an influential educational practitioner in the USA wrote in the 1970s about television as the 'hidden curriculum' from which he predicted, the mass of people especially the young, would learn, form their beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviour.4 As Nicholas Johnson of the US Federal Communications Commission once said, 'all TV is educational TV; the only question is what it is teaching,' or as the Librarian of the US Congress, Daniel Boorstin, said, 'Nothing is real unless it happens on TV.'5
Let us examine our current systems of television, keeping in mind what Keynes said, 'the difficulty lies not in new ideas, but in escaping from old ones.'
The Commercial World
'We have moved from an era when business was our culture to one in which culture is our business'6
Raymond Williams pointed out in Television,Technology and Cultural Form, that radio and television were among the first technological innovations of scope to be born without a clear view of their purposes.7 Their purposes emerged as control over them evolved. In the industrialized world, control has been of two basic kinds: that exercised in the marketplace by commercial interests; and that applied by governments to protect and promote their perceptions of the public's interest.
Commercial interests in broadcasting have flourished as they have learned more effectively how to deliver audiences to advertisers. 'The product is the delivery of the largest number of people at the least cost',8 as George Gerbner put it. With the acceptance by the market that ours is an information age, there has been an unprecedented scramble to stake claims to avenues of the information super-highway. In the board rooms of the multinational communication enterprises there is a convergence of perception and purpose as they compete for control within a range of converging industries. New media moguls vie to own, control and monopolize a virtual landscape of information and knowledge. Millions are spent on creating the new competitive black boxes, in laying fibre optics, in lining up satellites, the buying up of rights and the merging of otherwise often competing industries. It is wholly understandable that these interests are the commercial enterprises that have controlled television increasingly in the past fifty years. Now their control will extend to the new multi-media Internet-based technologies.
Since the purpose of market-driven mass media is profit, we should not be surprised at the result, as exemplified in television: the advertising base of commercial television results in a uniformity of content, perpetuated and repeated and distributed to often prurient interest. Diversity will be accepted only if it produces a profit. Disneyfied, industrialized and commercialized fare increasingly presents what is often viewed as a benign normative view of society. No need to question it; after all it is a 'virtual' reality and not to be taken seriously! But this is Postman's hidden curriculum, a force as powerful as the oral poetic tradition of pre-literate cultures which was the curriculum of its time.
To what extent does our salvation lie in the preservation of public broadcasting?
A primary characteristic of the mass media is that they increasingly reach mass audiences in a computer chip and satellite world with diminishing regard for borders. This defeats the purpose of governments which have sought to use these media in support of national interest.
Anoher way of saying this is that all electronic mass media tend to undermine hierarchical social structures and institutions. The reason for this is that the more access more people have simultaneously to the same information, the less need for institutions to mediate, and the less opportunity for these institutions to control or monopolize that information.
Over the last fifty years, public broadcasting has become institutionalized in many regions of the world, and particularly in industrialized countries. Many will argue that our most important social values and perceptions are reflected through the institutions that we create. Institutions of public broadcasting, in particular, have grown around public service values.
In the meantime, however, new, more cost-efficient and elegant approaches to broadcasting have emerged. These are not only commercial systems that depend on advertising revenue, but alternative, specialized services made possible through satellite, cable, and direct broadcast satellite systems.
An important question now facing public broadcasters, is how to streamline their operations to be more cost efficient, less bureaucratic and more responsive to changes around them, without losing the central social and cultural values they represent.
Privatization of public broadcasting systems is a decidedly unimaginative response. If public broadcast systems come to rely upon the same revenue base as commercial systems and need to compete with them, their capacity for innovative creative programming will be limited by the strictures of commercial broadcasting. There is little evidence that commercial systems are willing or able to accommodate public interest.
The widespread belief in the importance of public broadcasting is countered by increasing concern over the huge bureaucracies and expensive approaches that have emerged at taxpayer expense. However, the solution may not be to try and tax the commercial systems for the support of public broadcasting. If cultural and social values are to be promulgated through broadcasting, then governments have to ensure that they are properly funded, while the systems themselves are retrofitted in accord with more cost efficient approaches to the development of excellence in programming. Public airwaves need to be seen on the same level of importance as education, health, and transportation. If we continue simply to eliminate funding to public broadcast systems, instead of streamlining them, we will soon have recourse only to commercial systems.
The Commission report suggests that some of the public interest principles found within the policies and procedures of the better national public service broadcasters may be applied internationally. This, even if they may no longer serve the protection of domestic interest. What might these principles be?
In the country I come from, Canada, our Broadcasting Act has served its purposes well. It includes a salient clause that reflects respect for the diversity of social and cultural perspectives in Canada. The clause reads:
The programming provided by the Canadian broadcasting system should
This clause was derived from the high-minded notions of the early days of Canadian Broadcasting. It recognized that our nation is made up of diverse cultural, religious, regional, and national interests. To ensure that these are well represented, each licensed broadcaster has been required to demonstrate adherence to this principle.
In a period of spectrum scarcity, this clause influenced who was licensed and under what conditions. However, as the multi-channel spectrum develops, this principle is increasingly subject to an emerging market perspective, and the need for broadcasters to be competitive not only in a Canadian market, but in others. The diversity of perspectives in broadcasting in Canada is increasingly a function of the overall universe of licensed services, rather than a characteristic of individual licensed services.
Despite this change in interpretation, the principle remains a central Canadian value the respect for minorities, for a diversity of perspectives, for the views of women, for the dignity of children, for an exposition of religious views and so on, recognizing the plurality of our society.
This principle has as much value on the global broadcasting scene as it does for any national policy.
There are many similar principles which are inherent in the traditions that have emerged around public broadcasting.
The Commission, in the Chapter titled 'Challenges of a Media Rich World', and in the recommendations at the end of the report, calls for a number of studies leading to agreements among nations and international agencies on how to ensure the public interest in broadcasting nationally, regionally, and globally. I agree with the need for such research, both in support of improving and streamlining public broadcasting at the national level, and seeking to protect global values through broadcasting. Studies of this kind, however, take time owing to the need for consultation and review, and do not always lead to assertive action. In the meantime, the technological clock is ticking and new and innovative services are emerging in competitive commercial style. The gap between North and South may be widening as it relates to access and self-expression. The appropriate harnessing of the new technologies and the protection of the public interest may be slipping from our grasp.
The Commission also recommends an examination of alternatives to the existing systems of commercial and or public broadcasting in the form of innovative systems. WETV, The Global Access Television Service, is singled out as a case in point, warranting serious attention and support.
In other words, as we study policies and options, we should also be studying alternative systems that exploit the latest technologies, the changing times we live in, and the new opportunities.
I believe both approaches, that is the programme of developmental research proposed in the Commission report, and the review and support to new and innovative systems, need to take place simultaneously. As will become clear, my emphasis is on the latter.
The Need for Alternative Approaches
For most of us, birthdays that end in zeros have special significance, especially those with a four or five in front. They cause us to reflect, to take stock and to contemplate whether we have amounted to anything. In the industrialized world, just as members of the post-war baby boom generation now turn 50, many of our major institutions, including those of the United Nations and most national development agencies, are also turning 50. The same is true of our public broadcasting institutions; like many of us they are going through a mid-life crisis, apprehensive about the future. At the same time, a century and the millennium are ticking over, not with just one zero, but with three! It is indeed time to take stock, to learn from our successes and failures.
Almost three years ago, a few colleagues and I began to explore how we could make a small contribution to democratize the world's audio-visual space in one vital area, that of television.
Our first task was to examine the institutional, and financial models. I was struck by one fact. That the organizations charged with assisting the developing countries to achieve progress, had invested very little in the field of media and communication and most of what they had invested had been in technical infrastructure. I am aware that some European governments are an exception. Several OECD countries have an outstanding record in journalism, broadcaster training and in the promotion of 'grass roots' media ... (The Netherlands is notable in this regard).
Nevertheless, the organizations mandated to fuel the progress of the developing countries, now turning 50, are beginning to ask if they have failed to recognize the human factor, and particularly in the issue of human communication. Although the priority of promoting sustainable development has accepted the need to focus more on the social sectors, the key element in effecting social change has escaped most programme designers. Emphasis, even in the social sectors, continues to be placed upon the provision of services, to the detriment of the need to change attitudes and behaviours.
While this problem exists at the project or programme level, the impact has been compounded since most development agencies have hardened their approach to emphasize what might be called 'corporate communications.' Once, there was a clear distinction within development agencies in regard to the promotion of a greater understanding of international development issues usually termed development education - and creating support for that particular development agency. Again, the Netherlands has been exemplary in this regard, with its support for development education aimed at children. But, as political support wanes for development assistance, more emphasis has been placed on embellishing the image of the institution; and less on objective development education, including support for the educational efforts of national NGOs: a very short-sighted policy.
Similarly, agencies of the United nations, faced by major financial constraints, have reduced their allocations to information and communication from the already very small amounts.
My contention is that a modest re-allocation of resources by the United Nations Community and national development agencies, could immediately achieve some of the objectives of the Commission.
WETV, the Global Access Television Network, is a case in point. It is a new alternative satellite television service that responds to two basic 1990s demands: firstly, the need for greater access to television for local, regional and global self expression. This is a matter discussed in the Commission report. Secondly, many of the international agencies involved in development support are, as already mentioned, going through a 50 year mid-life crisis leading to some reflection on their appropriate role in development for the future. It has become evident that the same international institutions have failed to communicate as well as they should have and that there is a need for a broader public exposure of issues of local, regional and global concern that are within their mandates.
It has also become evident to these development support agencies that communication and information should no longer be relegated to the shadows of sectors such as agriculture, health, infrastructure and others. Indeed, it is clear that providing access for more effective communication from the grassroots up is an important twenty-first-century issue.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio created Agenda 21 as a means of addressing the crucial issues of sustainable development. In the chapters relating to information and communication, Agenda 21 argued 'countries in cooperation with the scientific community should establish ways of employing modern communication technologies for effective public outreach.'10
This Agenda item was taken seriously particularly by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Canada, which put up one million dollars in support of an R&D initiative into the development of a mechanism to provide more effective access and outreach. The million dollars was offered to be matched with funding from other agencies, on a participant membership basis. Over twenty international agencies participated in the R&D process. The result was the creation of what has come to be called WETV.
WETV is neither a public broadcast system in the traditional sense of the phrase, nor strictly a commercial broadcasting system. It is a hybrid global network employing lessons learned from new specialty services, using cost efficient approaches based on the new digital production, post production, and distribution tools.
For the two years of the R&D period, I and my colleagues operated from a secretariat, overseen by an international steering committee made up of representatives of those agencies which had contributed to the R&D process, along with distinguished world figures. We examined a wide range of broadcasting models and options looking for a way to bring together the positive values of public service broadcasters with the financial sustainability of private systems. The result is a hybrid service that puts private and public money together for the creation of a network that depends neither on the market demand pull of advertising nor the government influence of national public services.
WETV is a partnership-based network owned and operated through two separate companies: A profit-based share capital company, called WETV Network Inc. and a non-profit WETV Foundation to interface with public sector agencies, donor agencies, the UN system, and foundations. The principal shareholder in the profit-based company is WETV Network, Inc. and in the non-profit company, WETV Foundation. The financing for WETV, both in its start-up phases, and its long-term operation, comes from two primary sources. The first source is from the public sector agencies which have funded the development of the network through the block purchase of (Mosaic) time which they themselves can use for more effective distribution worldwide of the programming they produce or acquire on matters of local, regional and global concern.
The second source of revenue is six minutes of advertising per hour in programming not provided by public sector partners, but created and developed by the Network itself.
The Network, rather than spending capital on the creation of fully-staffed studios, operates through independent producers and production houses that we have come to know over the last twenty years. These independent producers are found in countries all over the world, including developing countries. Sourcing programming in this way ensures a wider reflection of a diversity of viewpoints from the social and historical perspectives of those young, ambitious, and creative individuals.
Those involved in the creation of WETV have years of experience in the development and operation of networks. The author is the founder of a Canadian-based network called Vision Television, which has operated successfully in a domestic market on the same model, primarily with religious (Mosaic) partners, for almost ten years. Many international agencies working with WETV acknowledge the importance of coupling private financing with public initiative. WETV has established the model for this in broadcasting.
To test the model and formula in WETV, a pilot preview was launched from Beijing, China in September 1995 in association with the Fourth UN World Conference on Women and Development. WETV combined live coverage of events in Beijing with Mosaic programming from over twenty-five international agencies involved in human development. Programmes were distributed by satellite to thirty-four broadcasters reaching some fifty countries. The purpose of the exercise was to show that it could be done, and on a cost efficient basis.
The WETV initiative of course is not just to get programming up to satellites, but back down to earth, to be efficiently and effectively carried to large and diverse audiences. To this end WETV has established relationships with existing terrestrial broadcast services and cable systems around the world.
In its start-up phase, WETV will provide these existing services with one hour a week, for carriage within their schedules, rising to one hour a day, then to two hours a day. Of course, the more hours a day provided by WETV, the fewer existing terrestrial systems will be able to carry the full load, and so WETV is seeking dedicated channel arrangements with cable systems or direct broadcast satellite systems around the world. Even in a dedicated channel stand alone phase, WETV will continue to distribute programming and to work with existing terrestrial broadcasters, including public service broadcasters, who need the programming, the stimulus, and the partnerships that WETV represents.
A second preview experiment was conducted by WETV in June of 1996 in association with the Habitat II Conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Before, during and after this venture, WETV established a relationship with Apple Computers, Inc. to link the broadcast service with the Worldwide Web through the Internet. For the first time at a United Nations-sponsored global conference, people could see programming directly associated with the conference, provide feedback and enter into discussion with officials through the Internet. WETV promoted the Web site through the programming it distributed via satellite to its broadcast partners and put government leaders, mayors, and other specialists on video so that those chatting on line would be able to see and converse naturally with the participants. The Apple/WETV Website had up to 50,000 participants a day through the Internet from no fewer than 79 countries around the world.
On 15 October 1996, WETV began regular ongoing distribution of programming starting with some twenty affiliates taken from the Beijing and Istanbul experience, focusing first in developing regions of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Asia-Pacific regions. Programmes are offered in English, French and Spanish, with some in Portuguese. There are two kinds of programmes on WETV: Mosaic and Cornerstone. Mosaic programmes are provided by our international partners and deal largely with issues of sustainable human development. Cornerstone programmes focus more on culture and entertainment including music from around the world, and a strong mix of programming for children and youth. Thirty per cent of WETV's programming will focus on children and youth, and WETV has a strong commitment to involvement of women in its service, and the treatment of issues of women's empowerment.
In each country where WETV is establishing an affiliate arrangements, we seek ways of enhancing production standards with the independent producers with whom we work and with the broadcaster, whether public or private. Revenue sharing schemes are worked out in each case. WETV is dedicated through its public sector partners, to seeking ways of funding the necessary technological or training upgrading needed to stimulate more effective programme development on a country-by-country basis. At the same time, through its development partners, WETV is seeking ways of ensuring that the appropriate mix of broadcasters and the public have access to Internet services. Indeed WETV seeks to use the Internet to get feedback on programme needs and reactions to programming provided by the network. In addition, WETV has a strong relationship with a number of regional NGOs to undertake audience and distribution research and to provide initial programme monitoring and audience reaction feedback.
On aggregate, WETV is a partnership venture whose partners include international agencies involved in human development, existing national level broadcasters, cable systems and direct broadcast satellite systems, the satellite industry itself, private sector philanthropic investors, advertisers, and a range of NGOs.
One specially created partnership is a unique UN-based Inter-Agency Committee created to support WETV and to explore the best way for UN agencies to participate and benefit. This Committee comprises ten agency executive heads:
WETV is a new breed of public service oriented broadcaster, but with a hybrid partnership structure borrowed from specialty service experience, and relying upon cost-efficient approaches through new digitalized technologies. It is meant neither to compete with nor to take the place of existing public or commercial systems. Rather it is an alternative to them, developing a new style of engaging programming with and through its partners, and through the under-valued talent that resides around the world.
I have already touched on the central importance of ownership and control in directly influencing the product that can be developed and distributed. The more the product is tied to neither government funding, nor the cost per thousand demands of advertising, the more opportunity there is to develop new programming in a flex of broader interests and perceptions that reflect the essential values espoused by public service systems. That is the aim of WETV. Moreover, it aims to work with broadcasters and producers in each country to stimulate high-quality public service-oriented programmes. A larger involvement of talented women alone, would help to provide distinctiveness to the network's programming. Its dedication to programming for children and youth will require the development of new models of programming meeting the needs of youth in the twenty-first century.
WETV is presented here as one creative response to the emerging needs outlined in the Commission report. It does not purport to do more than to provide one avenue to build on existing experience in a broadcast enterprise to give broader access, to reflect a wider diversity of cultural perspectives, and to empower human-centred creativity. It will succeed if it has a large number of partners participating each in its own particular way.