Public Services and the Challenges of the New Media
The far-reaching changes that are a feature of the end of this century have involved a series of transformations, such as the convergence of technologies, the worldwide reach of the media, and the global nature of their content. These changes are bringing about a real revolution based on information and learning, symbols of the information society and the new technologies. Learning and knowledge are becoming determining vectors in the new value added economy. Intangible resources such as software, applications, programs and services are becoming the new raw materials and the real resources of the learning society.
At the root of this great change are the advances made in the new information and communication technologies, including digital compression techniques, information storage capacities and means of broadband transmission. The appreciable drop in the cost of such facilities has made it possible for their use to spread rapidly among both operators and users. This development has the effect of bringing the different technologies of the computer, telecommunications and audiovisual industries closer together. Their convergence thus becomes a tangible reality and makes possible the large-scale development of new services, known as multimedia, which bring to businesses and homes data or images edited differently in accordance with constantly evolving techniques. The possibility of using networks of computers ushered in a further stage, when the Internet and its applications burst upon the scene. This worldwide network then became an essential factor in the internationalization of the media.
All this coincided with the opening up of markets, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the trend towards democratization in various parts of the world, and a liberalization of the laws governing communications. This unprecedented development precipitated the blurring of political boundaries, shook up the monopolies and also raised a number of questions concerning public services: their place and their mission in the unsettled world of broadcasting, the crises they are going through in many countries, their role in the exercise of democracy and the defence of the freedom of information. In this connection, experts in many countries are asking questions as to the future of public services, and making in most cases unanimous, and in some cases irrevocable, assessments: public service television organizations are faced with a triple crisis - identity, funding and functioning - which is threatening to undermine their continued existence.
The public service crisis
The public service crisis is the result of a combination of constraints of a technological, economic and political nature, which has radically changed the significance and the scope of public broadcasting organizations.
The gathering pace of progress in the new information and communications technologies and the signs of convergence of the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors with computing, from which they have largely developed apart, are due in the main to five fundamental changes: the digitization of images, sounds and data, the development of algorithms to assist compression, the increasing power of electronic components, the development of very high storage capacities, and finally high-speed switching, through the ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) protocol in particular. The simultaneous occurrence of these advances is bringing us nearer to the setting up of a new high-speed world network combining the complementary features of the new information technologies and the telecommunications industry. The linking up of all of the support media involved would ensure that the services could inter-operate, thereby helping to make the information highways a tangible reality. A new technological age has been reached, facilitating the setting up of worldwide webs on which the information society will depend. These innovations will take their place in a sweeping technological change that is going to disrupt completely the conditions in which information and knowledge are produced and distributed. It will be possible to process, store and transmit information, in whatever form (speech, image, text), without the constraints of space, time or volume. This breakthrough will rid broadcasting of the main difficulty encountered by conventional television throughout its history - the shortage of radio and TV frequencies, and hence the limited number of channels. These innovations will lead jointly to an improvement in the quality of television from the technical standpoint, and, above all, to an increase in the number of providers able to invest in new information networks and to offer users new services. This will radically alter the world of broadcasting and also the balances previously established between the public and the private sectors.
The new media
With the convergence of new technologies, the development of digitization, and the opening of markets to competition, the laboratories of computer and consumer electronics companies are continually coming up with new products and other ways of transmitting information. These new possibilities, first available in the industrialized countries, are gradually spreading all over the world.
The Internet may be regarded as a new medium with the status of a world information network. The advent in 1995 of the World Wide Web, a global network of servers, made the Internet available to the general public in less then two years. Besides, with its world coverage and the increase in its capacities, the Internet is also opening up to new users, such as industry, the electronics trade, the media, universities and scientific bodies. The North American continent has gained a considerable lead in the exploitation of the network, for it uses almost three-quarters of the access possibilities available. However, other continents are gradually connecting up, the developing regions in particular.
Saturation of the Internet is foreseen, and, together with the arrival in force of multimedia services, it will make the development of information highways inevitable. These have been defined as broadband digital networks capable of making available to the subscriber at great speed a series of new interactive services, such as: distance education, data bank consultation, tele-shopping, medicine at a distance, pay-per-view television, videophones, etc. Broadband networks represent a veritable technological, economic and cultural revolution, destined to banish geographical, temporal and cultural boundaries. In industrial circles they are compared with the great railway and road networks constructed across continents.
The Internet boom and the prospect of information highways give rise to questioning about the future of the familiar general-interest media. Are they doomed to decline and die out? Will they still attract audiences when they are up against the exponential growth of supply and the diversity of services? Will they be able to adapt to the digital revolution and the multimedia boom and meet the new demands of the public? The great changes that have been brought about in the world of broadcasting show that the conventional media have managed to adopt totally new approaches, to exploit technological advantages, and to adapt to new audience reactions in an area increasingly dominated by the digital revolution and the multimedia.
In fact, the new technologies provide publishers and broadcasters with more opportunities of reaching audiences. In the print journalism sector, they have gained considerable ground in newspapers and magazines. The computerization of editorial offices has revolutionized the journalists craft, created new jobs and transformed old ones. It enables publishers to participate in the current digital revolution by putting newspapers on line on the Internet.
In the broadcasting sector, the various technological developments have radically changed radio listening and television viewing, offering people a wider range of possibilities. Audiences are segmented with a multiplicity of forms of broadcasting. This diversification of the broadcasting scene will be carried still further with the development of the new communication networks.
All these innovations will bring about considerable sociological changes affecting the use of the press, radio and television, and ways of listening and viewing. The conventional separation of programming from production is on its way out. Jobs and the tempo of work are constantly being changed. The digitization of broadcasting and production techniques gives rise to a continuing urgent need for the further training and qualification of media professionals. One may wonder whether the means available to the public services will enable them to adjust to these great technological and social changes. The programming and organizational set-up of the public service as it stands does not seem to be prepared for this development.
The new services
The information society and its new network structures hold out prospects for a very wide range of applications and services. Generally speaking, three broad types of services may be distinguished: datacom services such as electronic mail or access to data banks, already widespread; the new interactive multimedia services whereby a television set equipped with a decoder can be used to receive personally selected programmes on demand; and, lastly, the new communication services.
The new multimedia and interactive services, it is thought, will constitute the major means of communication in future decades. They should make it possible to break entirely with television as we know it, inasmuch as the new digital systems should be able to react to information transmitted by users. If this were the case, viewers would no longer be passive consumers of programmes; their consumption would be completely free and individualized. It would no longer be a matter of having access to a wider selection of programmes, but of putting together a particular programme from a stream of specialized programmes, as with pay-per-view services, for example, or near-video-on-demand (NVOD), or video-on-demand (VOD), the last-generation service.
As regards on-line services, the Internet acts as another means of making available not only value-added services, but also multimedia works and programmes. This is a new and prosperous market, which is gaining ground in all fields of activity.
In the information sector, the Internet seems to be establishing itself as a new medium, alongside the press, radio and television, for the communication of news. Nowadays, all the big media have Web sites and are vying with the other conventional media in the fields of news, entertainment and spare-time activities. Thus, articles and photos are supplied by the press; sound and video recordings by television organizations; and radio programmes are broadcast all over the world, live or pre-recorded. What is more, the use of electronic mail is spreading much faster than faxing; the various low-cost telephone services available via the Internet are a matter of concern to the conventional telephone companies, which are trying in vain to find some legal remedy. The purpose of all this is not to make press, radio or television users change over to an electronic medium providing the same content, but rather to develop new on-line services on the basis of existing occupations, with the backing of the public image of the conventional media.
In the economic sector the Internet represents a laboratory of services which will be accessible in the near future on the information highways. It will thus be possible to sell any product or intangible service, such as virtual banks without agencies, or anything else that can be reproduced on an electronic medium (book, newspaper or magazine, picture, video, etc.).
The development of the new media and the communication networks is also the corollary of a series of economic changes which have weakened the monopoly of national broadcasters.
The first change was the general trend towards intangible forms of economic exchange, which affected all economic sectors. This process is giving rise to new forms of economic exchange and social organization, while freeing the economy from the usual constraints of distance and shortage of resources. The information economy is becoming an economy of abundance and profusion. The essential value lies no longer in the physical medium, but in the growing production of intangible goods and the development of knowledge, which is becoming a valuable and costly strategic resource entailing a fierce struggle for access to its content and control of its distribution. Faced with the development of these services and products, as costly for the producer as they are for the consumer, public services are likely to find themselves cut off from important sources of information and thus no longer able to put on attractive programmes.
The second change follows from the general spread of the market economy and competition in sectors until recently largely subject to monopolies (telecommunications) or oligopolies (terrestrial television). Taking place under international pressure, it involves a redefinition of the dividing lines between public and private and en erosion of the distinctive nature of the public service system. This trend is chiefly due to a desire to put services in competition with one another and stimulate demand in the communications sector. In the developed countries the impact of this liberalization has been far from negligible. New operators are striving to establish themselves; means of distribution proliferate (satellites, cable, video, CD-ROM); means of financing are changing (subscriptions, sponsoring); and the services provided are becoming considerably cheaper. In developing countries, too, the deregulation movement has become the frame of reference for any promotion or modernization of communication policies. In most of these countries, however, the communication sector is generally rather slow-moving, owing to the slowing down of their economies. In fact, the main obstacles hindering the development of communication relate to the cost and financing of infrastructure, and regulation and tariff policy problems.
As to the least developed countries, their situation has worsened, inasmuch as many of them have become still poorer and are left out of technological progress. In these circumstances, many analysts fear that, with the restructuring of the economies of these countries public service organizations will be replaced by a monopoly of large communication firms.
In fact, liberalization is important, and even indispensable, both for the satisfactory exercise of freedom of communication and for the encouragement of creativity and independent production. However, it cannot be regarded as a legitimate process of socio-economic change unless all levels of the population benefit from it. The opening up of markets should thus be effected within the framework of regulations guaranteeing access to essential information and communication services for all members of the population, those living in rural areas in particular. The success of liberalization depends, especially in the developing countries, on the presence of a strong public service and equitable rules of the game that will help to attenuate the risk of new monopolies.
The third change is the strong trend towards concentration of firms, brought about by take-overs, partnerships or the launching of new firms, with a view to broadening the scope of their influence and their activities. The broadcasting, press, publishing and entertainment sectors have seen the emergence of international conglomerates, which have under their control the whole of the means of production and communication of images, sound and text. The object of these conglomerates is to manage both the vehicle (production network, cable, satellite) and the programmes, which have become the decisive stake in the battle for the digital market. The boom in digital streams and the expected information highways have led to the building up of huge programme banks, which will supply the networks and generate the bulk of the broadcasting markets revenue.
These conglomerates introduce a commercial dynamic influenced solely by a strategy of global multimedia conquest, which obliges them to engage in a fierce competition in which only the strongest survive, to become nothing short of power structures, often more powerful than the political authorities. Internationalism and the hegemony of these giant world oligopolies threaten the cultural production of small markets and increase the risk of linguistic uniformity and cultural impoverishment.
In this new context of liberalization, concentration and globalization of communication, public sector broadcasting is increasingly in the position of a base behind the lines in relation to communication groups which, although local, have a regional or international coverage, as, for instance, Canal Plus in France, Fininvest in Italy, Kirch or Bertelsmann in Germany. These groups now seem to provide some of the general-interest television, formerly a function of the public sector. This transfer of responsibility has contributed to the weakening of the public sector in local broadcasting.
What is more, the development of pay-TV channels and exclusive rights is penalizing the public service channels. Threatened with being excluded from the flourishing football match market and handicapped as regards cinema programmes, these channels are trying to adapt to the new mores by resisting in other areas, such as tennis or cycling, or making do with lesser events. Governments, regulatory bodies and associations of television viewers are concerned about pay-TVs growing monopoly of the broadcasting of films and sporting events. The stranglehold of these monopolies on the world distribution of sporting events and cinema, as a result of the combined use of the new communication technologies, satellite and cable, relegates the public radio and television organizations to the position of poor relation, confined to the conventional sphere of terrestrial broadcasting. In order to obtain a share of the exclusive rights, the public service channels are obliged to devote a greater part of their resources to sporting events, and so reduce expenditure on other programmes.
The technological progress of the media and their internationalization, free enterprise and freedom of expression have led to a rearrangement of media set-ups all over the world and sapped the monopolies of national broadcasters, thus calling into question the balances previously established between the public and the private sectors. In many countries, the public sector has been superseded by private channels, and the rationale of commercial television has been allowed to triumph. In others, the public sector retains a leading role in broadcasting. Public service television differs from one region to another, however. Its resources, its funding status, the place occupied by advertising, vary in accordance with political traditions or the system of ownership of the media.
As a rule, three systems of broadcasting service are distinguished, each of which may include other forms of radio and television: compromise systems with public and private organizations, predominantly private systems, and state broadcasting systems. The compromise systems have evolved from former public service monopolies. This is the case in most of the countries of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and Japan, where public service broadcasting organizations hold a prominent position among the media. Until the advent of commercial television, state television had a monopoly in Europe. This meant that it had the whole of a vast audience, no competition to contend with, and relative autonomy vis-à-vis the state. The situation in these countries changed completely with the arrival of compromise public/private systems in the 1980s. At present, public and private broadcasting organizations share the radio and TV frequencies available, while encrypted and special-interest programmes are transmitted by cable and satellite, extending the number of programmes available to listeners and television viewers.
The second system is constructed on basically commercial lines, viz. free enterprise and competition. The role of the state is equivalent to that of a traffic policeman, whose job is to prevent confusion. The United States, most of the Latin American countries and some parts of Asia have adopted this system. However, public radio and television are present in an alternative and marginal form in the United States with the National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System, and in a community form in Latin America.
The third system is the state broadcasting service with a monopoly of broadcasting in the country and exclusively public funding. In such countries, democracy is still in its infancy or non-existent. The state has the leading role and directly or indirectly controls all the programming. This model is going through a crisis, under pressure from several quarters. For one thing, the upholders of democracy criticize the political control of television by the government or the political party in power. For another, state systems now have to compete with international television organizations. Lastly, in the former Soviet bloc, as in the countries in a transitional phase, public service broadcasting is still an embryonic ideal. Though the broadcasting scene does evolve in a pluralist society, the absence of a political and professional culture is often an obstacle.
Public services, a controversial issue
Thus the gradual structuring of markets, the emergence of new players and services, the increasing internationalization of the issues at stake, the transformation of the political scene, have led to radical changes in the organization of public services. The arrival on the market of private operators and broadcasters has put an end to the supremacy of the public television channels. Doubts are now expressed concerning the ability of public service media to meet the requisite standards, in terms of quality and flexibility, for the new demands, and also to cope with the management of communication systems that have become increasingly complex. Their decline has become apparent, with signs of stagnation, and even a drop, in their audiences, and it has led to a reduction in state subsidies and advertising revenue, upsetting the long-standing balances existing between the public and the private sectors, and the conditions under which they competed. All these trends have made public service for some years now a subject of controversy, opposing those who advocate reducing or even dismantling it and those who want it, on the contrary, to be strengthened and extended to the new communication networks.
The former hold the view that this crisis is a symptom of an irreversible decline due to the public services inability to adapt to the technological explosion and the multiplication of programmes. The public service continues to provide general-interest programmes while streams of special-interest channels are proliferating. It remains unidirectional while interactive services are developing. What is more, it uses a single medium while multimedia services are gaining an increasingly strong foothold. Some are of the view that this inability to change is a good argument for the privatization of public services or their reduction to a strict public utility. Others, still more critical, consider that many public service organizations function as a result of advertising revenue and entertainment programmes and that such a loss of identity defeats their purpose and hence invalidates the states commitment to an undertaking in which profit-seeking overrides cultural concerns.
The advocates of a public service counter these arguments with basic objections. First of all, public service television is treated in these theories in economic terms, such as audience ratings and market share, whereas it is actually a learning tool in the broadest sense of the word. Not only does it contribute to forming the mind and offering everyone a conception of the world and society, but it also constitutes the only activity bringing together people of all social groups and all ages, thus linking all environments. In an increasingly fragmented society, the public service is a meeting-place where social and cultural ties are formed. Moreover, while commercial television uses its audiences to increase its income from advertising and make profits, public television uses its advertising resources to fund and promote educational programmes. Those who advocate restricting public television to the purely educational and cultural sphere actually want to confine culture in an ivory tower for the benefit of a minority. This would mean that culture, entertainment, sporting events and cinema programmes requiring the purchase of exclusive rights, would be available only to those who could afford to pay, thus excluding de facto the great majority of viewers. What is more, if the public service organizations were to be dismantled, the whole of the communication sector might be taken over by big international groups.
These doubts, now frequently expressed, raise other questions, which are central to any consideration of the future of public services. The first question concerns the conception of television and its missions. Is it an industry manufacturing basically commercial products closely associated with advertisers? Or is it an institution designed to enable the whole population to have access to knowledge, education and other forms of entertainment? In other words, is culture in the broadest sense a value to be shared by all in the same way as education? Or should it remain a luxury reserved for those who can afford it? In the latter event, the information society, bringing, besides economic benefits, a cultural diversity with great potential for artistic expression, would be an aberration.
The second question raised concerns the use of new media and access to their contents. The costs of the future multimedia services might act as an effective brake on use and access, and thus create a divide between those who can afford to access the content and those who can neither access nor communicate information. How, then, can wide access be facilitated for individuals and diverse regions and the benefits of the learning society be shared equally? What can a public service do to extend the provision of new services to the populations unable to afford access to them?
The third question raised concerns the evolution of the field of application of a public services in response to the convergence of the new communication technologies. Radio and television are now developing in a multimedia environment in which the old subcategories of terrestrial broadcasting, cablecasting and satellite broadcasting have been superseded. In this new technological context, it would be hard to be content with the conventional abstract notion of public service, too restrictive to apply to the information societys range of new services. The fields of application of public services are tending to grow wider. Formerly, the telephone was regarded as a universal service, really accessible to everyone on equal terms. Radio and television are now regarded in the same way; and perhaps at some future point the Internet, cellphones or digital television will be regarded as indispensable for a full and complete social life, and as a fundamental right of all citizens in a modern democratic nation. Beyond the proliferation of the new media, the public service concept thus appears to re-emerge in other forms - universal service and equal access for all to the new media and their new services.
These questions as a whole go to show that public service is not an outworn concept. It is a highly topical one, especially with the extension of the field of action of the major international concerns, and the risk of excessive concentration and abuse of a commanding position. We are reminded, too, that with information and communication, more than with any other sectors, issues of power, sovereignty, culture and ethics are at stake, and these sectors raise in new terms the problem of the legitimacy of public broadcasting. This is a highly topical issue embracing the place of a public service, its capacity to adapt and its field of application in the new economic environment characterized by the globalization of markets and competition.
Public services: new paths and challenges
The great changes in the world of communication cannot be compared with any previous human experience. They alter the balance of power on an international scale and are quite beyond the understanding and control of states. They are a cause of dismay to most politicians, and misgiving in many observers. They make it imperative for public services to adapt. Otherwise, their future is likely to become irreversibly chaotic.
The term public service has several closely related meanings, varying with the extreme diversity of public service statutes around the world. Generally speaking, however, a number of similar trends in regard to political, social and innovative values can be discerned. Public service represents a series of activities and facilities subordinated to public authorities. The term denotes in some cases the body providing an economic or cultural service, in other cases a mission of general interest entrusted to that body. More basically, however, a public service has as its main feature the protection of users by a series of guarantees. The system rests on three basic principles - continuity, equality and adaptability. Equality requires that access to a public service must be available to everyone; it rules out any discrimination from the standpoint either of rights or of costs. Continuity represents the obligation to meet the needs of the public continuously, without any interruptions except those provided for in the regulations. Finally, with adaptability, a public service is supposed to be responsive and show itself capable of evolving in line with changes in general-interest demands. It can thus be modernized and extended, but also restricted.
Public service as so defined calls for two observations. The first of these is that the notion of public service must be distinguished from two closely related notions - public monopoly and public sector. At the outset, the technical means of communication (telecommunications, then radio and television) were regulated on the basis of a public monopoly, i.e. state control exercised by a government. The idea that public service implied a monopoly, that is, the exclusion of all competition, was based on the hypothesis that public administration was infallible and superior to private management. This hypothesis, which was for a long time central to the debate on public service, and which has never been confirmed in actual fact, has now been superseded. Besides, the public sector has nothing to do with public service, which is generally defined as a series of missions, rights, obligations and management criteria not to be confused with the ownership of the capital of an undertaking. For instance, there are private law television producers who develop programmes of an educational or cultural nature usually regarded as public service. In this particular case, the notion of general interest applies to all communication organizations, whether public or private.
The second observation concerns the role of the state, redefined, but still indispensable in this period of great upheavals. The convergence of the different communication sectors, combined with the liberalizing of telecommunications, has been instrumental in modifying our conception of the role of the state, assimilated from time immemorial to one of absolute authority. Direct public intervention has since been revised downwards. The cultural, political and social importance of the new media prevents the state from holding aloof from the great changes, however. State intervention no longer takes the form of demonstrations of authority; the state is regarded, according to the case and the country, as an administrator of specific social or cultural activities, as a traffic policeman of the air, as an architect in the operation of the national broadcasting system, as the promoter of the fundamental principles of democracy. The presence of the authorities has always been justified on a number of grounds: the first is the need to see that the law is observed in regard to the protection of private life, law and order, intellectual property and competition. The second ground is the need to ensure the preservation of the great public service missions - equality of access for citizens throughout the whole territory, continuity of communications, and adaptability of the contents of the universal service. The third and last ground is the need to administer and distribute among operators collective resources in short supply such as frequencies, which have to be allocated to military and civil applications and, within the civil applications, to telecommunications and to radio and television broadcasting.
In view of the two foregoing observations, the public service environment has to be redefined from a much more practical standpoint. Any review of public service cannot be confined to mere references to public interest obligations, for these are imposed on commercial channels, too. The customary obligation to educate, entertain and inform which went with a public service no longer suffices nowadays to define its missions or specific features. It does not explain in what way the programmes of public channels should differ from those of commercial channels. Hence the need to note the basic elements in the distinction between public service and private service.
The concept of public service implies in the first place that the goals pursued by public service channels are not identical with those pursued by commercial channels and that their action is based on different lines of reasoning. Whereas a private channel is out to make profits and retains only programmes that pay off, a public service channel is set up to meet the needs of the community, to draw as wide an audience as possible and to include all manner of programmes. The assertion of this difference is based on a number of cultural, political, ethical and innovative values, which give the public service a special position.
The first of these values consists of an editorial policy of innovation, giving creative people more chances and taking risks, for which more often than not there is no place in commercial channels.
The second value is to win the trust of listeners and viewers by presenting all manner of programmes without partiality, demagoguery or vulgarity, always respecting the fundamental principles of ethics and the opinions of one and all.
The third value is that of maintaining a programming industry for educational purposes and the broadening of backgrounds, since it is through the conventional and the new media that citizens are prepared for their role in society - a key responsibility incumbent on public services.
The fourth and last value is that of encouraging a pluralist approach to the most diverse currents in the arts, language, philosophy, politics and religion. This value helps to inform and educate citizens, to inculcate an appreciation both of the heritage and of regional cultures or cultures of foreign origin, to give expression to differences, and to bring about a united society.
These values as a whole are helpful in the redefinition of what constitutes public service in a pluralist, diversified context inclusive of the new media.
A pluralist public service for citizens
Public service television has a duty to be a television in the service of democracy, administered at arms length from the political, economic or religious authorities. Such independence would really ensure diversity and pluralism, facilitating, on the one hand, balanced access to air time for the countrys political and trade union forces and, on the other, expression of the various religious beliefs and currents of thought, including those of minorities. These are key factors in the concept of public service and they are means of combating the uniformity of programmes resulting from the globalization of networks and images. In this new context of internationalization of information and over-abundance of visual images, the public service must provide a frame of reference, bringing more clarity and meaning to the news, a more analytical and educational treatment of the great changes of this century, and more standards and ethical principles in the newsroom. When addressing the body of citizens, the public service must provide background information and guidance concerning all aspects of social life - employment, education, training, science, culture, etc. Public service information should show events as they are and help the public to understand them. It should contribute to a knowledge of the world, to the defence of human rights and of social justice, to respect for minorities and local cultures. Hence the importance of strict checking of sources of information and a broadcasting ethic that does not allow violence, vulgarity, disinformation or indulgence in the spectacular and sensational in the presentation of events. The adoption of an unequivocal code of ethics patterned on the BBC Producers Guidelines would make the public services an example to be followed. As the television of all the citizens, the public services would then display more pluralism and diversity in their programmes. They could no longer be administered in a monopolistic framework or given over to commercial criteria. Their justification and their purpose are to be found not in submission or imitation, but in the assertion of a specific identity.
A diversified general-interest public service
Their cultural mission, in the broadest sense of the term, is the one of which general-interest public broadcasting organizations are frequently reminded. It may be summed up roughly as the obligation to broadcast, in view of the considerable potential audience of the media, a number of religious, political or community programmes usually neglected by private enterprise broadcasting. To achieve a diversified citizens public service, however, it is not enough to be at the disposal of the majority if, in reality, one runs the risk of being accessible only to a minority. In other words, public broadcasting services cannot carry out their mission and their programming by confining themselves in a cultural and educational ivory tower, with only documentaries, theatre and educational programmes on offer. A policy of this kind, excluding the vast majority of viewers, means that public service can hardly be equated with service for all.
Public service channels should therefore be different from private ones, while taking into account the needs of a diverse audience. On the one hand, they must meet cultural and educational needs that cannot be met through strictly commercial thinking. On the other hand, they must fulfil the numerous requirements of television viewers - in the fields of information, entertainment, films and games in particular - while not being systematically driven by economic considerations imposed by the market. The difference between a public service and a private service is a difference not in the kinds of programme they run, but in the ways in which programmes are produced and shown. For instance, promotional or spectacular games are out of place on a public service channel. Conversely, entertaining and educational games which put a premium on creativity and originality are quite legitimate.
If public service general-interest television is to regain its legitimacy, it must therefore pursue three goals: developing diversified and balanced programming without sacrificing quality; winning the confidence of the public; and reflecting the cultural diversity of a society. These are basic conditions of the establishment of a social bond, cohesion and common references within a nation.
A public service abreast of knowledge and innovation
Education, learning and knowledge have become the basic vectors of the new economies and the real resources of the future information society. The new communication networks make available tremendous capacities for the provision of training and education. The Internet, for instance, is one of the major sources of information and documentation accessible anywhere in the world. Thousands of scientific and technical publications can be consulted through it, generally free or for a small charge. It is the backbone of the worlds electronic mail (e-mail) systems. Among related services are its bulletin boards, known as USENET news groups, which enable academics inter alia to co-operate. In poor or developing countries lacking in libraries and documentation centres, the Internet enables academics and researchers to break their isolation by establishing close contacts with the international scientific community. Their working conditions will be transformed when they can tap into the vast resources of the research centres and foremost universities of the industrialized countries. Thus in economies based increasingly on knowledge and education, or continuous training and upgrading of qualifications, access to networks dedicated to learning and training processes should be regarded as an essential service presupposing public support and the protection of the authorities.
Public service redefined: universal service
The worldwide development of communication services and networks is gradually becoming an established fact in all the key sectors of society, including education, health and employment. It raises a series of new problems concerning the funding of such services and their reconciliation with certain public service obligations such as that of providing equal access to programmes for all. With the explosion of the new communication networks and their manifold applications, however, the usual references of the public service are no longer so obvious. Universal service, an evolving model borrowed from United States telecommunications terminology, is beginning to supersede the concept of public service. It is doing so in different guises and according to different processes from one country to another. In a number of European countries, for instance, universal service is still taken to mean public service, often with its overtones of public enterprise and equality. More than just the existence of a telephone in every home, it implies that universal infrastructure for communications can contribute to national unity and equality of opportunities. In other countries, universal service is limited to ensuring that equal and efficient access is provided to indispensable services, regardless of the status of the provider. In other countries again, universal service stands for ideological support of monopolies of postal, telegraph and telecommunications services. A regulated monopoly is said to ensure the protection and development of universal service. Of late, the universal service concept has come to the fore again in political debates on the information society and the pressures it exerts to change the rules of the game in the economic sphere.
Like democracy and equality, universal service has become one of the most frequently quoted principles of telecommunications. It is defined as ensuring a service that is both universal (presupposing access for everyone at an affordable price) and equal (implying access regardless of geographical situation), and also continuous (i.e. uninterrupted provision and a stated quality of the service). This concern is reasserted in all public statements and reports relating to the information society. In all of them, the idea of universal service is highlighted as an answer to the marginalization that would result from the costs of access to information services. Incidentally, the European Commission has adopted a resolution proposing measures to ensure universal access to communication networks.
Many observers think that if the term universal service is employed in official parlance rather than public service, it is in order to stress the breaking of the customary link between general-interest service and a state monopoly. Others think that the term was chosen as the lowest common denominator of the conceptions of public service prevailing in the English-speaking world and on the Continent. It is conducive to a conception of public service as a compensating factor in a market-regulated context. In this case, there is a real risk of access becoming a privilege of the markets, particularly when it comes to new value-added services.
In fact, the concept of a public service cannot remain confined to a basic telephone service. It must be able gradually to expand to include the other communication services such as interactive television, on-line data transmission and cellphones, as indispensable complements to the basic telephone service. Hence the idea of a universal multimedia service put forward by many decision-makers.
The question of access to the content of such a universal service then arises. How would it be financed? How could its financing in a competitive and liberalized international environment be reconciled with public service obligations? Faced with the sudden deployment of new media on a large scale, many experts and politicians, hard put to it to reach agreement on the contents of such a service, are asking questions about the legal and financial conditions of access thereto. This is a strongly debated issue opposing those who regard free access to the networks as a fundamental right, in the same way as the other rights, those who consider that conditions of access should vary according to the situation and the nature of the information (accessible, social or reserved information), those who maintain that access to the networks should be provided as a universal service, at no cost or at an affordable charge, to meet the basic needs of citizens for education, science and health, and those who regard access to the networks as just another commercial service.
In view of these different standpoints, a precise definition of universal service is one of the leading issues of the negotiations on an international scale concerning the complete opening to competition of the communication sectors. It seems increasingly urgent to redefine this concept in order to adapt it better to all the new media and communication networks. In this connection, more and more people are in favour of setting up some means of regulating contents so as to ensure the survival of pluralism and freedom of expression and the application of a popular cultural and linguistic policy enhancing national resources. As regards the new media and other carriers of a wide range of information, public intervention should, while facilitating the economic conditions of development of a diversified and competitive supply, guarantee access to the networks for all so that the most basic needs, in respect of education and culture in particular, are met regardless of mere economic considerations, and that the services corresponding to other needs are affordable for the majority.
Requirements for Regeneration
Current technological developments, the gradual structuring of the market and the emergence of new services raise questions about the financing of the public services and about their capacity for investing in the new communication technologies. Questions, too, as to the means of regulation best suited to the new communication environment with its multiplicity of players and services and increasingly internationalized programmes. The answers to these questions will affect other questions, such as those concerning the structural and administrative reforms to be introduced to achieve diversified programming of a high standard.
In this new context of change and expansion of new communication networks, public broadcasters are faced with the crucial problem of funding. They are torn between their missions, the constraints of their status, and the need to find resources to maintain their position and participate in the great technological changes.
The multiplication of television channels and the development of communication networks have been accompanied by a considerable increase in the investments of advertisers in the communication sector. This was an upsurge that first benefited the private media, which absorbed not only the growth of the advertising market, but a part of the advertising revenue of the public broadcasters. The public services have since endeavoured to adapt to this new context by resorting to a wide range of sources of funding - licence fees, direct government subsidies, advertising revenue, or a combination of these elements. In Europe, the BBC is financed solely by licence fees, Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE) solely by advertising. The situation in France (FR2, FR3), Germany (ARD, ZDF) and Italy (RAI) lies somewhere in between, with a system of mixed funding based on advertising and licence fees. The Canadian CBC and the Australian ABC receive annual budgets voted by parliament, supplemented in the case of Canada by revenue from advertising. As government support for public broadcasting is limited in the United States, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is financed by sponsoring.
Indeed, no method or combination of methods of financing seems ideal. The problem is a complex one and remains central to the debates about public service. Many observers think that financing through advertising subjects programmes to mercantile considerations with a market rationale. This method leads inevitably to a continual lowering of standards and the race for audience ratings. The public service mission is then secondary to the advertisers interests. Others think that recourse to sponsoring as a tempting compromise solution increases the risk of the programmes being taken over. It drives broadcasters to plan their programmes in a way that will appeal to sponsors. Others again think that the BBC licence fee system is the ideal model, guaranteeing as it does independence from political or commercial pressures. It enables the public service to provide listeners and viewers with a wide range of diverse programmes, whose success is not tied to the results of an audience rating device. However, the licence fee system can be introduced only in countries where the public can afford to pay.
This debate is regarded by other analysts as no longer relevant with the expansion of programmes and the internationalization of the implication. They maintain that it is nonsensical nowadays to restrict the public service to licence fees and subsidies, and commercial television to advertising revenue. The political and economic independence of a public service channel should be ensured by the diversification of its sources of financing. Public financing is no doubt the best means of guaranteeing the high standard and diversity of programmes, but other sources of financing, such as the collective resources of society, public loans, or a redistribution of profits from a commercial activity, can help balance the budgets of public service channels.
The availability of considerable financial resources would make it possible not only to strengthen the social role of the public service channels, but also to invest in the new technologies and the communication networks and their applications - a new field of which pay-per-view and special-interest programmes are a basic feature. As a result of this process, people may gradually stop watching the usual general-interest television if the public channels remain impervious to change. Especially as this trend may reveal new collective needs in the fields of information, training and knowledge.
What is more, the likelihood of the majority of the citizens of a country being marginalized or cut off from the potentialities of the new media cannot be dismissed unless the public service organizations are given a place and an important role to play in the information society. With this in view, the exploration of new paths might be encouraged. Public service organizations might be provided with capital to diversify their activities, or they might be granted a research and development budget enabling them to invest in research in the new communication technologies. However, only insistence on public financing for the most part can in the long run ensure the development of the public service channels in a competitive international environment. The obsessive fear, and hence emulation, of private television having thus been dispelled, the public service channels could devote all their efforts to reflecting, and even enriching, the cultural, political and social life of a nation. They could then redefine their purposes and reform their structure so as to offer programmes of a high standard that would extend or diversify their social and cultural role.
Appropriate flexible regulations
The need to harmonize the rules governing competition and to provide a universal service that is open and adaptable raises the question of the reconsideration of the regulatory role of the authorities and the new relationships of the market with public service organizations. Confronted with further changes and the likelihood of more in the next few years, many states have enacted legislation or taken decisions of a regulatory nature. The strategies adopted differ from one state to another in accordance with political traditions or the ownership status of the media.
Where regulations exist, they are laid down by independent bodies responsible for the regulation or the supervision, according to the state, of the programming activities of private and public television broadcasters. These bodies are generally extraneous to the administrative structure and free, in theory, from all political or legal control. Some even have decision-making powers enabling them to organize the national broadcasting scene and monitor the legality of the conditions of broadcasting of programmes by public and private broadcasters. They are empowered to sanction any breach of the law.
Generally speaking, regulation consists in seeking balances in the functioning of the communication market. It is based on two separate systems. In so far as television is concerned, the role of the authorities is first of all to frame regulations anew for the purpose of maintaining and developing the public service in a clearly defined competitive framework. One of the priority missions of the regulatory bodies is to preserve the pluralism of ideas and convictions and see that healthy and fair competition is not hampered in the communication market. In this connection, the limiting of any vertical or horizontal concentration should prevent the emergence of a monopoly that would crush competitors. Some states have introduced regulations, for both economic and cultural reasons, obliging broadcasters to produce and programme a certain quota of national works. By this means they hope to mitigate the consequences of the internationalization of the media for domestic production and the circulation of goods and services. The editorial and structural independence of the public organizations vis-à-vis political, economic and religious authorities is also made clear in their statutes.
In so far as the new communication networks such as the Internet are concerned, the monopolies of the major distributors of information are falling apart now that any user can put material on the networks. This confronts the authorities with new problems in connection with intellectual property, the protection of users, of minors in particular, and the upholding of law and order. How can we maintain freedom of expression, the cornerstone of any modern democracy, while preventing the networks from becoming the Trojan Horse in our midst? States are endeavouring to set up bodies for concerted discussion bringing together providers of contents, access providers and representatives of civil society. The debate has been opened and the proposals made so far all point towards technical, ethical and professional ethics solutions. Many states are of the opinion that the only way of reconciling freedom of expression with the protection of minors is to introduce technical gatekeepers in the form of software enabling parents to block or scramble unsuitable contents. Restrictions on this software are in the process of being lifted.
However, in view of the international scope of the Internet and the challenge of the globalization of exchanges, a national approach to regulation is no longer possible. The authorities will have to think up solutions in an appropriate international framework, for national regulations are likely to be set at naught by the decentralization of the servers. Many states are contemplating the introduction of a legal framework specifically for the Internet. It would rest on the adoption of an international convention to be applied by the appropriate authorities of each state, a minimum of common principles serving as a basis for a code of ethics or code of practice.
The development of a competitive, general-interest, modern public service presupposes an innovative editorial policy, independence vis-à-vis economic, political and religious authorities, the confidence of listeners and viewers and willingness to hear what they have to say, a well-thought out production strategy with the majority in mind, and pluralist programming open to the most diverse trends in society. It takes strong political will on the part of the authorities to obtain the budget required for the specific tasks of a public service. Then it requires a considerable financial effort, backed by the most varied sources, to participate in the development of the new information technologies and the new multimedia applications. A commitment on this scale would give more weight to the cultural expression of citizens by offering them a wider selection of programmes and services and, unlike the encrypted services, free access. It is doubtless through media exemplifying such values, in the BBC tradition, open to innovations and high-quality production, at arms length from political and economic authorities, that the public service will really accomplish its mission of informing the public at large, a mission essential to the democratic functioning of present-day society.
Lofti Maherzi - doctor of political science (University of Paris, Panthéon-Sorbonne), graduate of the "Institut des Hautes Etudes en Cinématographiques" (Paris) and bachelor of laws (University of Alger) - has specialised his research in the field of communication and its new technologies. He has lectured this subject at the Universities of Alger, of Tunis and of Versailles St Quentin (France). He is the author of the second edition of the World Report on Communication, Paris, UNESCO, 1997.