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, or again the global nature of their contents. These changes are bringing about a real revolution based on information and learning symptomatic of the age 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 and programs are becoming the new raw materials and the real resources of the learning society.
These great changes coincided with the opening of markets, the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the trend towards democratization in various regions 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 practically everywhere, the conception they should have of their mission, and their public role in the exercise of democracy and the defence of the freedom of information. All this reminds us 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.
The public service crisis
The arrival on the market of private operators and broadcasters has put an end to the supremacy of the public television channels. Their decline has become apparent, with signs of stagnation, and even a drop, in audiences, state subsidies and advertising revenue in particular, upsetting the long-standing balances existing between the public and the private sectors, and the conditions under which they competed. All these trends have resulted in making the 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 public service crisis has been brought about, however, by the concurrence of constraints of a technological, economic and political nature which have radically changed the significance and the scope of public broadcasting organizations.
The technological constraints are due to major technological breakthroughs which have led to the emergence of new media and new communication services. These breakthroughs result from radical transformations such as 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 going to 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, in conjunction, will lead to an improvement in the quality of television from the technical standpoint, and, above all, 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 development of the new media and the communication networks also follows from 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. The essential value lies no longer in the physical support, 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.
The second change followed from the generalization of the market economy and competition in sectors until then largely subject to monopolies (telecommunications) or oligopolies (terrestrial television). This trend is chiefly due to a desire to put services in competition with one another and stimulate demand in the communication sector. However, while liberalization is important, and even indispensable, for the satisfactory exercise of freedom of communication, its success depends, especially in the developing countries, on the existence of a strong public service and equitable rules of play of a nature to attenuate the risk of new monopolies.
The third change is the strong trend towards concentration of firms, brought about by purchases or alliances, with a view to the broadening of the scope of the influence and activities of big international conglomerates. 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.
On this point, governments, regulating bodies and associations of television viewers are concerned about pay-TVs increasing monopoly of the broadcasting of films and sporting events, which relegates the public radio and television organizations to the position of poor relation, confined to the conventional sphere of terrestrial broadcasting.
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 logic 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 means, its funding status, the place occupied by advertising, vary in accordance with political traditions or the system of ownership of the media.
Public services: new paths and challenges
The great changes in the world of communication make it imperative for public services to adapt. Otherwise, their future is likely to become irreversibly chaotic. This step is based on a number of cultural, political, ethical and innovating values which are helpful as a whole in the redefinition of the public service in a pluralistic, diversified context, inclusive of the new media.
A citizens pluralistic public service
Public service television is a television in the service of democracy, administered at arms length from the political, economic or religious authorities. Unquestioned independence would really ensure diversity and pluralism, thus facilitating, on the one hand, balanced access to air time of the countrys political and trade union forces and, on the other hand, expression of the various religious beliefs and currents of thought, including those of minorities. These are key factors in the identity of public services and the means of combating the uniformity of programmes resulting from the globalization of networks and pictures.
A diversified general-interest public service
Public service channels should be different from private ones, while taking into account the needs of a diverse audience. On the one hand, they must meet basically cultural and educational needs that cannot be met with a strictly commercial logic. On the other hand, they must fulfil the numerous requirements of television viewers - in the fields of information, entertainment, television films and games in particular - without for all that 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.
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. Access to networks dedicated to learning and training should be regarded as an essential service presupposing public support and the protection of the authorities.
Public service redefined: universal service
With the explosion of the new communication networks and their manifold applications, the usual references of the public service are no longer so obvious. The concept of universal service, borrowed from United States telecommunications terminology, is beginning to supersede that of public service. In all public statements and reports relating to the information society the idea of universal service is brought to the fore as an answer to the marginalization that would result from the costs of access to information services.
With the boom of the new media, the concept of a public service cannot remain confined to a basic telephone service, however. It must be able gradually to extend so as to include the other communication services, such as interactive television, on-line data transmission or cellphones, as indispensable complements to the basic telephone service. Hence the idea of a universal multimedia service put forward by many decision-makers.
A precise definition of universal service is one of the big issues of the negotiations on an international scale concerning the complete opening to competition of the communication sectors. With this in view, more and more people are coming out in favour of some means of regulation to ensure, on the one hand, the survival of pluralism and freedom of expression in regard to contents and, on the other hand, access for all citizens to the networks and to services dedicated to education and culture.
Funding specific to the public service
With the expansion of programmes and the internationalization of the stakes, restricting the public service to licence fees and subsidies, and commercial television to advertising revenue, has become nonsensical. The political and economic independence of a public service channel should be ensured by the diversification of its sources of financing. Public financing is 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 also make it possible to invest in the new technologies and the communication networks and their applications. Especially as this development might reveal new collective needs in the fields of information, training and knowledge.
Appropriate flexible regulations
Confronted with further changes, and the likelihood of more in the next few years, many states have drawn up regulations with a view to striking balances in the functioning of the communication market. Such regulative action 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 guaranteeing the pluralism of ideas and convictions and seeing that healthy and fair competition is not hampered in the communication market. In so far as the new communication networks such as the Internet are concerned, the authorities are confronted with new problems in connection with intellectual property, the protection of users, of minors in particular, and the upholding of law and order. The debate has been opened and the proposals made so far all point towards technical, ethical and deontological solutions.
The development of a competitive, general-interest, modern public service presupposes an innovating editorial policy, independence vis-à-vis economic, political or 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 pluralistic programming open to the most diverse trends in society. It takes a strong political will on the part of the authorities to obtain the budget required for the specific missions of the public service. Then it demands 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.