Themes: Our Creativy Diversity
A new global ethics
A commitment to pluralism
Challenges of a media-rich world
recasting cultural policies
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Lecture by Horst Stipp
Director of Social and Development Research, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), USA

real audio fileIt is an honour to be here at this prestigious conference. As a researcher at NBC I believe I am the only commercial broadcaster at this event. I don't intend to present an official NBC position on any of these issues. I will try and speak about what I think are the views and responses of commercial broadcasters to the issues raised, although of course my own personal opinion will doubtless be reflected in what I say.

I was invited to review the fourth chapter on the Challenges of a Media-Rich World. So let me give you my comments on the Commission's goals, concerns, and solutions expressed in this chapter and particularly on what I believe to be the role or potential role of commercial broadcasters in that context.

pijltje_beneden.gif (179 bytes) Challenges of a media-rich world
Introduction (Madala Mphahlele)
David Nostbakken
Horst Stipp
Bert Mulder
Panel Discussion
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A new global ethics
pijltje.gif (179 bytes) A commitment to pluralism
General Introduction

In essence, three goals are spelled out in this section of the report: that communication media should flourish in a competitive environment, that media content should display greater cultural and creative diversity and that programming should be based on ethical principles. The Commission is concerned with a number of issues. One problem, for example, relates to the first goal, namely that competition is hampered by national monopolies, as well as by international concentration. Another question relates to restrictions on content: for instance, that women are given unequal access to local media, but also internationally, and that there is a standardization of media content which conflicts with diversity. A third issue involves the focus on violence, pornography, and entertainment.

Governments are now having to deal with the delicate task of opening up protected monopolies to competition. The causes are mostly technological, since satellite and cable cut across all borders. They are also political: not only the passing of totalitarian systems of state control but also increasingly vocal pressures for access and voice in democratic societies, where communication is still predominantly "top-down" in nature. They are economic as well, in the search for profit in a free market environment.

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

What are the solutions offered and discussed in this chapter? The Commission discusses a feasibility study on the need for debate, and recommends research to explore certain solutions, again related to the three goals. Firstly, regulation to encourage competition and the establishment of an international code of practice. Secondly, the creation of alternative regional and global services to promote cultural diversity, possibly to be financed by fees and taxes on commercial broadcasters. And thirdly, the establishment of higher standards of content in all media, not just in television, but without introducing censorship.

In the discussions in this chapter, commercial broadcasters are given something of a mixed press. A number of positive points are mentioned. The Commission notes that in the international arena commercial broadcasters have contributed more choice, they have actually led to an increase in competition, they have made a real contribution to the freedom of information world.

But there are a number of negative points too. Firstly, not all areas are served. Africa is identified as the main issue here, a point made eloquently in the introduction, Secondly, concern has been raised about the concentration of ownership in the hands of commercial broadcasters, big companies, primarily American. There is also some concern about a universal uniformity of content, labelled 'global culture', which the Commission believes discourages diversity. And finally, with regard to programme content in commercial broadcasting, it is suggested that commercial broadcasters tend to lay too much emphasis on programmes containing entertainment and violence.

I wish to focus on what I believe are the Commission's four critical points relating to commercial broadcasters. Firstly, the issue of ownership concentration versus free competition; secondly, programme variety versus entertainment focus; then 'global culture' versus programme diversity; and finally, the question of programme standards, including issues such as television violence.

With regard to the first point, ownership concentration versus free competition. I certainly agree with the Commission that ownership concentration is a genuine issue, but the issue may not present as great a peril as the Commission believes. Moreover, there is another side to this. It is clear that commercial broadcasters are currently restricted through an absence of free competition. It is not always possible to ensure equal opportunity everywhere in the world because political, economic, and cultural factors actually limit access. Most countries favour local, regional or national providers. In fact, the report cites a couple of examples. However, commercial broadcasters should not be seen as a threat to free competition. In many ways they actually suffer from the absence of free competition, even though they are big and profitable companies which you would not normally identify as victims. There seems to be a highly complex issue involved here, and although ownership concentration may be a real issue around the world, it is less of a threat than the commission considers.

I would like to make two points regarding the issue of programme variety versus entertainment. In the first place, I believe that international broadcasters do in fact add variety in programming through news, information and entertainment. Obviously, there is CNN and more recently MSNBC; the Internet is a provider of news around the world which is also recognized by the Commission. Further interesting additions to programming include, for example, Discovery with its documentaries on ecology and nature. Then there's NBC of course. Here in Europe we try to provide pan-European news and show American entertainment in its original form. I should also mention a competitor of ours, MTV, a music channel. Even though some of you may not like what they broadcast, we should acknowledge their creativity with video formats which represents something really new.

If you examine the strategies and policies of these commercial broadcasters, they are simply targeting particular audiences and interests on a commercial basis. And for that very reason, although they may be motivated by purely commercial and business interests, they actually add to variety in programming. It is my contention that there is no such thing as a purely entertainment focus. But inasmuch as entertainment programming exists I feel compelled to come to its defence. One should never forget that people watch television for pleasure as well as for education and information. In fact it's a wonderful thing that they can watch television to relax. If you look around the world, the peak viewing hours are in the evening. That is when people are tired, after having worked all day; they want to relax and have fun for a while. Yes, information and knowledge are empowering, but I suggest that entertainment can also be empowering – not exclusively but as a large part of the overall mix. This is something we often overlook. Moreover, the ratings for these programmes, however tasteless we may consider them, show that this is what the audience wants. The public is making a free choice. If we feel compelled to suppress that because we wonder how people can actually watch Baywatch, we are limiting people's choices. Of course we could debate for hours about what entertainment is. I was at a conference in Germany a few months ago where a panel of private and commercial broadcasters discussing the issue of quality talked for three hours without agreeing on anything.

But that leads me to 'global culture' and 'cultural diversity'. I do not consider global culture and cultural diversity to be mutually exclusive. Global culture is a part of, not a threat to diversity. In fact the report actually supports this view. For example, in arguing that audiences prefer homemade fare it cites MTV as adding local colour to their programming in order to improve their image: they realized that American programmes alone do not attract viewers. Local programmes achieve higher ratings than imported programmes. That is clearly true. As a researcher I can tell you an interesting fact. The spread of cable in the northern hemisphere, primarily in Europe, has resulted in an abundance of channels which have enormously increased the amount of choice. Many, if not the majority of programmes on these channels are imported, primarily from America. But here is an interesting fact. Fifteen or twenty years ago, the average viewer in Holland, Germany, France or Italy watched more American television series than today. Fifteen years ago, and I'm sure you all remember Dallas and Dynasty, these programmes were shown on the main national channels. But they aren't the staple of the big domestic channels anymore. What seems to have happened is that international competition, the flood of international channels, has mobilized and inspired local broadcasters and local televesion industries, including the non-commercial, public channels, to make a greater effort, to create programmes tailored to the domestic culture that compete with foreign programmes. In other words, there is another side to this influx of American and global products. Free competition means giving access to local products too. So it is important to resist those who campaign to keep 'foreign trash' off the television screens. This is often just a way of gaining a monopoly position and introducing restrictive practices. It may be for economic reasons but it may also, for example, be because American programmes show women in leading roles.

On the question of programming standards and cultural diversity, I would like to describe my own experience at NBC. We have instituted diversity training for all employees, with the focus on women and minorities. We regularly air public service announcements produced by our channel on drug abuse, drunk driving and education issues. We broadcast specific spots featuring stars from our series, especially stars with rapport, who are popular with the young. We invite them to talk about inspiring teachers they have known, because the quality of education is a real issue in the United States. We try to play a positive role. With regard to programmes relating to young people, we organize projects to train writers and review scripts for programmes and one of the big issues here is to make sure that sexism and excessive violence are kept out of programmes. We make a genuine effort and we have a standards department that reviews all the shows with an eye to violence, sex and profanity. Over the years there is a clear increase in programmes featuring women and minorities in leading roles.

Gratuitous violence and pornography are pervasive. The sounds and images carried by the transnational media in particular may offend certain deeply held beliefs and sensibilities. What kind of world do they portray to the younger generation? Such questions are not asked in "traditional societies" or by developing country governments alone. It is not just a question of fearing the impact of "the West" As the British film producer David Puttnam has put it, "someone has to say, 'Enough' - because this is disaster, we are destroying ourselves. It's bad for us, we're damaging ourselves. We are untying the fabric of our society."

Report 'Our Creative Diversity'

One of the most controversial aspects of this issue is violence on television. The report quotes an independent study by the University of Californiaabout an increase in violence in network programming. Obviously it had the desired effect, because a new report, again by the University of California and LA shows a significant decline in the amount of violence on network television. It also emphasizes that there is much less violence on network programming compared to other media, meaning films and video games.

I recognize that I represent a relatively small part of the industry. I am not concerned with Hollywood films and I do not defend them. I am defending broadcasters. In fact one of the things we do is edit Hollywood films before airing them. An interesting consequence of which is that film critics have panned us for playing the censor. Yet all we really do is take out the violence. One remarkable finding in this new independent report is that network television is probably the least violent of all mass media. This is because American television is dominated by sitcoms. Broadcasters in the rest of the world don't buy these sitcoms, because American comedy programmes don't work very well in Europe. In the end, broadcasters around the world probably don't get the best of American television. But they are the ones making the selection, we don't impose the choice. In fact there are a number of series which are only produced for international sale. Baywatch, for example, would never have existed if it not for the European market. NBC cancelled it after one season.

Turning now to the solutions recommended by the Commission, free competition is something I know most broadcasters would give their full support. And promoting free competition worldwide is something that commercial broadcasters everywhere would embrace. There is strong support for finding ways to increase openness, fairness, decrease restrictions and developing a code of practice. In fact, I want to invite the Commission to include commercial broadcasters in this debate. The Commission's second recommendation was to explore an alternative service financed through taxation. Unfortunately, I cannot be quite as positive about this idea. Although I am a supporter of the dual-system of a strong public broadcasting network alongside a commercial stations, I know that not all broadcasters feel the same way. Moreover, the specific suggestion of an alternative service made here is not very clear on the content and the specific requirements that this service would have to meet. Furthermore, the report does not address what I consider to be the main issue, namely access. Would a service promoting diversity, human rights, and democracy be seen where it is needed most? This is a key issue, and it needs to be answered.

On the subject of taxation, David Nostbakken has already mentioned his views. Even the broadcasters who the Commission has identified as contributing to diversity and democracy would regard this as punishment for their contributions. With respect to communication access in Africa, I do not have the perfect solution, but I would encourage people to look for a better answer than taxation, to explore the possibility of working in partnership with commercial broadcasters and investigating whether governments or even corporations can provide incentives to improve the service to deprived areas and places where access to media is underdeveloped.

On the subject of improving the standard of content, I believe that everyone I know would back the Commission's commitment to fighting censorship. But the question is, 'Is there a possibility that a global agreement can be reached on principles of common standards?' The Commission has aired its views and I share their concern, but considerable disagreement on specific issues remains. There is one area in which agreement is unanimous and that is the protection of children. Perhaps, this can provide the framework for an agreement. In principle, the most promising approach would be to offer choices. To quote a colleague and a good friend of mine, Professor Joe Groebel who teaches at the University of Utrecht, "keeping kids away from bad programmes is not the solution. The solution is to teach about the media, about the consequences of the media and to ensure that children know more about the media". That is something I certainly embrace.

So I would encourage the Commission to consider that commercial broadcasters can help achieve the goals of free competition, increasing programme diversity, and higher ethical standards. Commercial broadcasters need free competition from a purely business perspective and this supports the goal of free information. Competition among different broadcasters helps increase programme diversity. Commercial broadcasters will also support efforts to protect children and to raise standards without recourse to censorship. I would therefore encourage you to work with commercial broadcasters to meet the challenges of a media-rich world.

Challenges of a media-rich world