That was the overarching question at a one-day conference at the University of York, entitled The Place of Public Service Broadcasting. Answers, or perhaps more questions, came in the form of papers on a wide variety of PSB topics, from user privacy to audience attention patterns.
The panel covering PSB and new technologies began with the Dutch cookie wall ‘incident’ where accessing Dutch public TV online was conditional upon accepting cookies. This caused a furore in the Netherlands and led to parliamentary hearings. It was argued that tracking and profiling is at odds with the public service mission of a broadcaster.
Also presented and discussed in the panel was a systematic study of how PSBs in the UK, Austria, Switzerland and Ireland were written about in newspapers, which – perhaps surprisingly – is positive on balance. The presenter said she was “stunned” at how much UK press talks about PSB. The data excluded stories on programmes and gossip on TV presenters.
The role of electronic programme guides and how PSBs traditionally had to have “due prominence” was discussed. But with the commercialisation of the space (positions can be bought and sold), customisation, online guides and the advent of smart TVs, that’s all set to change.
Small countries, big challenges
The first of two keynote presentations looked at public broadcasting in small European countries. This is obviously highly topical with the crisis of ERT’s closure in Greece. The presenter, Petros Iosifidis, drew some interesting distinctions between small countries in northern and southern Europe. The north tended to have well-funded PSBs and in the south (Greece included) PSBs more often had the characteristics of state broadcasters. It was also noted that despite different languages, Nordic countries have collaborated in broadcasting. Could southern European countries do the same? A question came from the audience about the possibilities of Turkey and Greece – and it seems the foundations are already there.
All of the broadcasters of small European countries faced similar challenges such as dominance by large neighbours, smaller language markets and the lack of the economy of scale. Iosifidis stressed the need for all PSBs to become PSM – Public Service Media in order to survive. It has to be more interactive.
The room was divided about the “radical” idea of the EU subsidising Public Service Broadcasting in the future.
TV isn’t just on the TV anymore
The industry panel started off by looking at attention patterns and how complex media consumption, and therefore storytelling, has become. But in many ways this isn’t new, and the panellist Hilary Perkins highlighted the “reinvention of the shared sofa” – a return to getting together to discuss what we’re watching and playing games alongside it, the only difference now being digital enablement of the process.
“People are not different, we’re still distracted, but it’s just that now we know” and know specifically how, in no small part due to social media.
The Space, a free digital arts platform from the Arts Council England and the BBC was then discussed as an interesting case study of public service media, making art more accessible to the public in a variety of forms.
The conference also heard from the Children’s Media Foundation, and an interesting point was made about how online games were now sometimes leading TV programme creation, not the other way around.
On social media, the use of fan engagement by Sweden’s SVT in their “Dear Steve Jobs” app campaign was explored and its impact studied. PSBs’ relationship to Facebook, and moderation of comments on PSB websites was also discussed.
The day finished with a keynote on the state of play of independent production for PSBs, from James Bennett and his report released last year (download it from our site). Bennett highlighted the fragile tension created by for-profit companies producing public service content, made all the more delicate by the pressure to produce more factual entertainment. While the independent TV production sector in the UK is growing, documentary budgets are dwindling and digital content budgets are spread across too many companies and projects.
The day’s underscoring question came from one of the academics to the industry panel: Do broadcast producers use academic research on broadcasting to inform what they do?
It’s something that should definitely be explored further.