Public Broadcasting Research Paper

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The history of broadcasting, beginning in the early 1920s, has seen three main types or models of broadcasting organizations. One is the commercial model, in which advertising is used to provide revenues, with programs seen as vehicles for providing an audience to which products can be sold. A second model is one in which the broadcasting organization is funded by the state, usually so that the state can project its political message and thus influence the public. The third model is known in the USA as public broadcasting but in most of the rest of the world as public service broadcasting. The most famous and influential example of this model is the BBC. It is this model with which this research paper is concerned, particularly by defining it in ways that will allow the reader to see the fundamental difference between it and the other two models.

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1. The General Concept And Background Of Public Broadcasting

In a public system, television and radio producers acquire money to make programs. In a commercial system they make programs to acquire money. However simple, this little epithet articulates the divergence of basic principles, the different philosophical assumptions, on which broadcasting is built. History and experience fashioned inside public broadcasting a definable canon, a set of principles and practices which constitute the core theses around which the institution has been formed and which have guided its performance.

The particular institutional structures and forms of funding may vary from place to place, but public broadcasting is above all else an ambition, a belief that the sheer presence of broadcasting within all our lives can and must be used to nurture society, to proffer the opportunity that society and its inhabitants can be better served than by systems which primarily seek consumers for advertisers or subjects for the state.

Some of the most powerful visions of the purpose of broadcasting emerged within unusual and trying circumstances. Consider, for instance, the cultural histories of the occupations of Germany and Japan in the late 1940s and the formulation of Allied policy for broadcasting in the rebuilding of those societies. Here was testament to the idea of broadcasting as primarily a social rather than an economic process, as something with moral, cultural, intellectual, and creative purpose and not just as a source of mild comment and moderate pleasure. The charters that established broadcasting in Japan and in Germany, by the Allied occupying powers, were replete with the public service ideal. If broadcasting was to comment, it should do so with a flourish. If it was to amuse, it should do so with elan. If it was to educate, it should do so with real professionalism. It was believed by the Allied leadership, including the USA, that the life of the mind of a society was far too precious and important to be left to what they took to be the vagaries of a commercial system or the oppressive force of state control.

It could be argued that such policies were creatures of the moment, as massive destruction demanded enormous reconstruction, of which communications would inevitably be part. But what was required was the restoration not just of highways, buildings, plants, but also of the shattered imaginative lives of whole populations. The architects of postwar Germany and Japan sensed correctly that healthy, diverse cultural institutions were a prerequisite to a functioning liberal democracy. Broadcasting was thus to be used as a key part of the cultural and social regeneration of those societies. In that lies the real clue to the nature and purpose of great public broadcasting: that it makes best sense when it represents a national and moral optimism within a society, when it suggests through the diversity and quality of its programs that societies be better than they are, better served, better amused, better informed, and, thus, better societies.

A period which is widely regarded within the advanced industrial societies as a high water mark of public service broadcasting, is the BBC in the early 1960s. A key figure from those years was Sir Arthur fforde, possibly the greatest of the chairmen of the BBC. In 1963 he wrote: ‘By its nature broadcasting must be in a constant and sensitive relationship with the moral condition of society.’ He felt that the moral establishment had failed modern society and that broadcasting was a way in which that failure could be rectified. He added that it ‘is of cardinal importance that everyone in a position of responsibility should be ready to set himself or herself the duty of assuring, to those creative members of staff … that measure of freedom, independence and elan without which the arts do not flourish’ (quoted in Tracey 1983, p. 235). That idea of providing a protective layer within which the imaginative spirit might create, lay at the heart of the BBC version of public service broadcasting which flourished in the postwar years and which constituted a model that other nations sought to emulate. Ian Jacob, Director-General of the BBC from 1952 to 1959, refined the notion. In 1958, in an internal document called ‘Basic Propositions’, he described public service broadcasting as:

… a compound of a system of control, an attitude of mind, and an aim, which if successfully achieved results in a service which cannot be given by any other means. The system of control is full independence, or the maximum degree of independence that Parliament will accord. The attitude of mind is an intelligent one capable of attracting to the service the highest quality of character and intellect. The aim is to give the best and the most comprehensive service of broadcasting to the public that is possible. The motive that underlies the whole operation is a vital factor; it must not be vitiated by political or commercial consideration.

This is one of the best attempts to capture in words a concept and view of broadcasting which continues to circulate in the world of cultural politics. Yet even here the vision, the articulation, is limited. Jacob’s words imply that we understand the nature of public service broadcasting not by defining it, but by recognizing its results, rather as one plots the presence of a hidden planet or a subatomic particle not by ‘seeing’ it, but by measuring the effects of its presence. The Pilkington Committee, on the future of British broadcasting, said as much in 1962 when it observed: ‘though its standards exist and are recognizable, broadcasting is more nearly an art than an exact science. It deals in tastes and values and is not precisely definable’ (Home Office 1962, p.13, para. 34).

One obvious characteristic of efforts to define public service broadcasting is the elegant vagueness that is studied and deliberate. In effect what is suggested is that one thing that has to be understood about defining public service broadcasting is that in any abstract sense one cannot.

The beast that lurks in the shrubbery of those discussions is that whatever the definitional uncertainties, in that public service broadcasting can be experienced and recognized but never properly captured by language, someone has to decide on what is ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and there should be a guiding hand, what has been referred to as ‘the custodians, the caretakers’ of culture. As traditionally understood by public broadcasters the whole idea of custodianship was totally unproblematic, as was understanding just who the custodians were, the characteristics they would possess and the locations in which they would be found. Such presuppositions appeared only natural throughout the history of broadcasting because that history was embedded within a social order in which hierarchy was also assumed: hierarchies of social status and cultural judgment. And in a curious kind of way the point of hierarchy is to reproduce itself, since the fundamental belief of the hierarchical system is, and has to be, that such arrangements have worth and merit. The plausibility of such a thesis becomes very much dependent on delivering evidence that attests to both worthiness and meritoriousness in such a way as to drown out the noise of any emergent countervailing thesis.

A key justification for the custodial role in most societies where public service broadcasting was established was that since the radio frequency used for transmissions was a limited natural resource, someone had to ensure that its use served the public good, the whole community. The cultural geology of this decision had, however, a deeper level to it, based on nineteenth century assumptions about the ways in which the arts and humanities could elevate the human condition. In an essay on the formation of modern literary analysis, Steiner wrote that behind the study of literature in the nineteenth century lay:

a kind of rational and moral optimism … a large hope, a great positivism … The study of literature was assumed to carry an almost necessary implication of moral force. It was thought self-evident that the teaching and reading of the great poets and prose writers would enrich not only taste or style but moral feeling: that it would cultivate human judgment and act against barbarism (Steiner 1985, pp. 77–8).

Reading this account one could quite properly substitute the word ‘broadcasting’ for ‘literature’ and have a powerful explanation of what the creation of the model of public service broadcasting was all about: a relocation of a nineteenth century humanistic dream of human betterment. The fear that drove that dream was of ‘the mob,’ the pervasive belief among cultural, religious, and political elites that there was indeed a dark side to the human soul that was, when let loose, dangerous and devastating to the flesh as well as the spirit. Whatever the apparent elitism, who is to say that they were wrong nestling, as they did, between the first great war and a looming second. There remained, however, a residual faith, tied to the whole condition of the Enlightenment, humanism, and belief in progress, that popular culture need not be debauched but could in fact transcend itself. Consider these key passages from the Pilkington Report:

Television does not, and cannot, merely reflect the moral standards of society. It must affect them, either by changing or by reinforcing them … Because the range of experience is not finite but constantly growing, and because the growing points are usually most significant, it is on these that challenges to existing assumptions and beliefs are made, where the claims to new knowledge and new awareness are stated. If our society is to respond to the challenges and judge the claims, they must be put before it. All broadcasting, and television especially, must be ready and anxious to experiment, to show the new and unusual, to give a hearing to dissent. Here, broadcasting must be most willing to make mistakes; for if it does not, it will make no discoveries (Home Office 1962, pp. 19–20, paras. 50–3).

The suggestion here is not that public broadcasters are all hoping and dreaming that their programs will transform people from cultural and intellectual slobs into something of which one can more readily approve, but rather that objectively some such argument must be the public broadcaster’s last line of defense. The language is of standards, quality, excellence, range. The logic is of social enrichment, that in however indefinable a manner this society is ‘better’ for having programs produced from within the framework of those social arguments termed public service broadcasting, compared to those programs produced within an environment in which commerce or politics prevail.

One cannot, however, escape the charge that those sentiments rest on a set of ill-explored assumptions about the sociological organization of modern culture. How are we better? What are the mechanics? And, vitally, where is the evidence? Indeed, what would such evidence even look like?

2. The Public Service Idea: Eight Principles

What then are the definable principles of public service broadcasting? Eight principles are outlined below.

2.1 Universality Of Availability

Public broadcasting has historically sought to ensure that its signals are available to all, that no one should be disenfranchised by distance or by accident of geography. The imperative that guides this principle is not that of maximizing customers in a market but of serving citizens in a democracy, that if one defines one’s audience as the citizens of a country, then logically one has to reach them all. To a remarkable extent in country after country this principle has been made real.

2.2 Universality Of Appeal

Public broadcasting seeks to provide programs that cater to the many different tastes and interests that constitute a society’s life. The public broadcasting community understands that each of us, at different moments, is part of a majority and a minority. In seeking to provide programs for a wide range of tastes and interests, public broadcasting does so with an eye cocked to the need to ensure that whether the program is pitched at the many or the few it is done so with real quality. Public broadcasting does not expect that it can please all the people all of the time—indeed it sees in that approach precisely the kind of populism that nurtures cultural mediocrity, as quality is sacrificed on the altar of maximizing the audience size.

It is an important element of this principle that public broadcasting serves not only tastes and interests that are readily apparent, but also those that are dormant and latent—that may be part of the potential we all possess but that circumstance may not have allowed us to develop.

2.3 Provision For Minorities, Especially Those Disadvantaged By Physical Or Social Circumstance

It is commonplace to characterize the medium of television as essentially serving ‘the mass.’ Certainly public broadcasting understands the vast capability of one medium to reach enormous numbers of people. It sets its face, however, against the logic of commercial systems to see people as no more than statistics in skins, with a definable value captured in the most desirable rates, demographic buys, and cost per thousand. As suggested in the second principle, public broadcasting views the public as a rich tapestry of tastes and interests, each of which, insofar as possible, should be served.

In particular it recognizes that there are whole subcultures of minority social experiences crying out for attention. People of different color, language groups, and religious preferences all have vital needs for expression in the political and social discourse of the nation. Public broadcasting is dedicated to a dual role here—on the one hand to give access to such groups, to provide them with the opportunities to speak to one another and to voice the issues as they see them, and on the other to provide coverage of their histories, interests, and concerns for the public at large.

2.4 Serving The Public Sphere

Some television programs are successful because they get a fair-sized audience, make some money, and sometimes even exemplify the craft of popular television. Other programs are successful because they reach out and touch a small, particular, but powerful audience. Some programs are successful because the craft of the program maker is used to speak to us all. They touch us, move us, make us laugh and cry and cheer. They speak to us because they speak for us. Like all great art, they help us make sense out of life, to see and understand things with a fresh eye, and give us a burning sense of the collective, of belonging to the nation-as-community. It is an increasingly vital principle of the work of public broadcasting that it recognizes its special relationship to a sense of national identity and broad community. Any nation is a patchwork of localities and regions, but it also is a nation, heterogeneous and homogeneous to a remarkable degree at one and the same time. Public broadcasting’s very nature is then to nurture the public sphere as a means of serving the public good. It understands that while within civil society individuals pursue their own private self-interests, it is within the public sphere that they function as citizens. It is a fundamental principle then that public broadcasting must motivate the viewers as citizens possessing duties as well as rights, rather than as individual consumers possessing wallets and credit cards.

2.5 A Commitment To The Education Of The Public

The most outstanding example of public broadcasting’s commitment to the audience-as-citizen is the long-time provision in almost all systems of educational programming at every level. Public broadcasting knows that political and social literacy, as well as of course literal literacy, is an essential prerequisite to the healthy working of a democratic order. Above all else, the commitment to this principle requires that it treat its audience as mature, rational beings capable of learning and growing in many ways. Thus much of public broadcasting has retained its commitment to institutional services. Daytime school broadcasting and formal learning services of all kinds continue to play a role in most national services.

2.6 Independence From Vested Interests

It is a simple but key principle of public broadcasting that its programs can best serve the public with excellence and diversity when they are produced from within a structure of independence. Programs funded by advertising necessarily have their character influenced in some shape or form by the demand to maximize the garnering of consumers. Programs directly funded by the government, and with no intervening structural heat shield, inevitably tend to utter the tones of their master’s voice.

The whole history of public broadcasting has been dominated by the idea that it can best serve the nation when it remains distanced from any particular commitment to any particular power structure inside the nation. Of particular importance to this principle is the ability of public broadcasting to support a cadre of independent-minded program makers, who are thus well able to speak with authentic tones and to offer that singularity of vision allied to creativity and passion that has traditionally produced some of public television’s finest moments. It follows that the political and economic architecture of this principle is such as to support the making of programs that are good in their own terms, whatever their intended audience. In the making of programs for public broadcasting, there should be no ulterior purpose or motive. It is axiomatic to this principle that the funding of public broadcasting should be such, in total amount and in the absence of any strings attached, as to encourage rather than negate the independence enjoyed.

2.7 Encouraging Competition In Good Programming Rather Than Competition For Numbers

This principle is central to public service broadcasting and essentially involves a commitment to making programs which, whatever their intended audience, are of high quality. The overwhelming brunt of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the most important aspect of such structuring relates to the forms of finance. Where commercial sources of revenue are dominant, or even present, or where there is direct subvention from government, the program maker’s eye is almost inevitably diverted away from what should be the main focus, the inherent quality of the program he or she is making.

2.8 The Rules Of Broadcasting Should Liberate Rather Than Restrict The Program Maker

While all broadcasting will inevitably be governed by certain prescriptions—‘educate,’ ‘inform,’ ‘entertain,’ ‘balance,’ ‘fairness’—and certain broadly drawn restrictions—obscenity, national security—the essence of the legislative foundation by which it is empowered should sustain a liberal function for the program maker. The legislation should create secure living space, arena for action, for broadcasters with all kinds of interests in possible programs and possible varieties of audience, rather than leaving the field to those who are interested chiefly in delivering maximum audiences most of the time. The legislation should also ensure that the higher echelons of broadcasting contain individuals who understand its potential and who themselves care for the importance of the creative work of their staff. Part of that understanding would be the need for experiment and innovation in broadcasting, the need to provide a focus for a society’s quarrel with itself, the recognition that mistakes will be made but as such may signify the health of the system.

Perhaps above all else, such leadership should be helped to understand that experiment, innovation, quarrel, and mistake are likely to come from the younger program maker, without whom the system is in danger of institutional arteriosclerosis.


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