BBC in the 1990s :Implications for Public Broadcasting in an Era of Industry Restructuring (Ⅱ)

Regardless of what view one is holding, a big problem with the British public broadcasting service is the future of funding sources. While many people endorsed the BBC's responses, the corporation's re-orientation coupled with the universal license fee imposed on all British television set owners still causes much consternation among those who believe public money should not be directed at these kinds of commercial ventures. In these people's view, the license fee issue is more of a moral issue than a budgetary one, because not everyone is pleased that the public's money is being spent on programming that not everyone can see.

Alternative Funding

In fact, the key issue is that, with the BBC's shares of the audience slipping from 51 percent in 1981 to less than 38 percent in 2000, concerns have been expressed that more taxes in the form of license fees have been going toward fewer and fewer viewers, while the public service broadcaster has been going to be a more and more commercial-broadcasting-service-like one. Therefore, discussions have been taking place for years into alternative funding sources for public broadcasting, such as commercial advertising, subscription memberships, privatization through shareholding and direct government grants. Many of these ideas, especially such as using advertising revenue to replace the license fee, were not just the ideas of a few experts, but also the suggestions of many audiences. A study conducted in 1998 found that 61 percent of viewers wanted the BBC to be funded by advertising rather than license fees. The results of that study signaled two important messages. First, the public knows the value of public service broadcasting and they still want to keep it, and second, it also suggests that a new generation of viewers, who have grown up in Sky's multi-channel and pay-TV environment, see no reason why they should go on paying a license fee for a service which could be supported by advertising.

Meanwhile, some others suggested that rather than have the BBC be all things to all people, it should become a subscription service. In so doing, the BBC would become something similar to the public broadcasting in the United States, which would offer the viewers and the broadcaster an opportunity to be partners of sorts in raising funds for the service. Still, some experts proposed that the BBC should be forced to shrink. They commented that the corporation could reduce its range of output and concentrate on making classy stuff; it could become a subscription service, which would have the added advantage that it was no longer dependent on taxation; it could be privatized and compete, unfettered.

However, decisions on many of these suggestions cannot be made just by the BBC itself; rather, they will also be depend on the opinions of the government, the society, and the majority of the people. The reform of public broadcasting services and the issue of license fees have therefore been put into the government's agenda. With all those suggestions regarding changes for public broadcasting and license fees, the Blair government has commissioned a panel to study the future of the license fee and alternative funding sources for public broadcasting services. It looks the reform of public broadcasting services will need to take a long and slow process and several phases with many careful and cautious considerations. But, so far two decisions of the panel are very helpful to the BBC. One was that the panel recommended that the license fee be maintained through 2006 beyond the year the BBC's charter will be considered for renewal. From the experiences of other countries, the panel saw too many disadvantages in advertising or sponsorship, subscription TV, direct funding or mixed funding in their application. The panel decided to adhere to the position that the license fee is the best way to finance public service broadcasting. Another decision was that the panel advocated and the government approved a digital television set supplement to the license fee that would generate additional revenue for the corporation.

Implications of Competition

The competition between the BBC represented traditional television technology based public broadcasting and BskyB represented new television technology based commercial broadcasting contains important implications. First, while many have signaled the death knell for public broadcasting, public broadcasting has not diminished; instead, by modifying its services and adjusting its approaches, public broadcasting has in fact improved itself in the multi-channel era. Despite that the market shares of the public broadcaster have been declining, all the responses of the BBC have seemed helpful to maintain or even strengthen its identity as a public broadcasting service. In other words, had the BBC not adopted those responses, today its position in this new environment could have been much worse.

As a matter of fact, in today's multi-channeled society, all the market shares of the broadcasting services with a long history have declined when compared to their market shares of a few years ago. On the other hand, the decline of their market shares is a natural and logical thing, because now there are simply much more channels at the market than before. Therefore, those that react fast and boldly would maintain their positions or even further enhance themselves, while those that tend to be passive would be out of the game either quickly or gradually.

Second, although the BBC has adopted a number of commercialization and privatization strategies, so far, basically it has maintained its role as a public broadcasting service. Actually, with the effects of injecting market forces into public broadcasting, the British broadcasting is to shift it from a public service system towards a commercial system in which there remains a public service element. The BBC's experience has shown that, at least up to now, it can do both—surviving the competition and satisfying the audiences.

Third, public broadcasting indeed needs to be redefined. One issue with what the BBC has done since the 1990s is that it can be interpreted very differently. From the perspective of some people, the strategies adopted by the BBC have symbolized a declining trend of public broadcasting. The BBC's attempts to exploit those new approaches for commercial purposes are both ineffective and threaten its traditional public service remit and they cannot be utilized for fulfilling public service goals. Moreover, the role model of public broadcasting's responses have not only reflected `the decline of public broadcasting', but have also reflected the situation that public broadcasting is becoming `globally extinct'. They warn that `what is in danger is not public broadcasting, but democracy itself,' because `the argument around public broadcasting was about so much more than broadcasting'—`it was about the whole character of our lives, about principles and values and moral systems that the market was marginalizing.'

New Environment

Clearly, an expanded notion of public service broadcasting is badly needed, and each of the terms, such as public, service, and broadcasting, requires a new thinking. Under the current new environment, the term `public broadcasting service' has to be redefined and reinterpreted—now the public is "publics": regional, minority, local, taste-based; the service is "services": on-line, interactive, on-demand; and broadcasting is now both `globalcasting' and `narrowcasting'. So, now the challenge for public service broadcasters is both to take the values from an earlier era with them and to take new approaches and strategies into the new environment of communication revolution.

Furthermore, under the trend of deregulation in the 1990s and with the introduction of new competition caused mainly by new broadcasting technologies, the broadcasting environment began to change quickly, and some of the boundaries of public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting have been blurred. In order to compete for audiences, even typical public broadcasting programming is available on commercial broadcasting services. Facing various kinds of challenges, doing nothing would only make public broadcasting less and less competitive.

Indeed, the implications of the competition between the BBC and BSkyB can be interpreted very differently. Some see public service broadcasting on its deathbed or in its grave, others describe it simply changing or reforming in this new age of broadcasting. However, at least up to now, it looks very likely that public service broadcasters, such as the BBC, are able to survive the competition in a digital world with adopting various new strategies, including some commercial-broadcasting-like approaches, and at the other hand, are also able to maintain a public service standard or even to improve its public services. Nevertheless, as a global trend one thing is certain that broadcasting will not forever be the pre-eminent example of a public good; instead, soon or late a host of broadcasting services and products will have to seek customers like other private goods. Therefore, public broadcasting services will certainly have many difficulties when trying to meet the strategic challenges they have set, and partnering the rise in competition is always a rise in uncertainty.

■Junhao Hong
Associate Professor
Department of Communication,
State University of New York at Buffalo

■Lawrence Sherlick
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Communication,
State University of New York at Buffalo

(Note: The data and materials used in this study were obtained from the Broadcaster's Audience Research Board, the BBC and the BSkyB, and interviews with the two corporations' officials and media and communication scholars; sources of references were not included due to the limitation of length.)
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