Financing public service broadcasting in the digital era
The constantly growing importance of the Internet has induced so-called ‘traditional’ media to diversify the forms of their production in order to develop rich and attractive websites. Audiovisual broadcasters had to resort to text to complete their offer on the web while the written press editors included videos and sounds on their websites. As a logical consequence, all editors borrowed from each other’s methods. But current times of financial uncertainty render competition for advertising income fiercer. In Belgium, as well as in other countries of the European Union, the newspapers publishing industry has vividly protested against the development of the public broadcasters’ activities on the Internet, claiming that a state-supported competitor was plundering their resources. In the French Community of Belgium, the press took their case to court, seeking an injunction that the public service broadcasters (PSB) cease all “written press activity” over the Internet, including electronic newsletters and presence on the social networks.
Similar sounds of dissatisfaction were heard from newspaper publishers in the Flemish Community. The Minister responsible for media policy in the Flemish government recently exposed her ideas on the future of the Flemish PSB and insisted, between others, on the need to clearly demarcate what tasks should be performed by PSB and what tasks should remain with private broadcasters. According to the Minister, prohibiting a PSB to develop into new media outlets would constitute, in the present societal environment, a condemnation to evolve towards mere ‘hospice care’.
In that briefly sketched context, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution on “public service broadcasting in the digital era: the future of the dual system” in November 2010. The resolution is based on a report prepared by MEP Ivo Bellet (BE). It opens with a reaffirmation of the necessity to preserve the “dual system” of the European broadcasting landscape and of the conviction that a “genuinely balanced” coexistence of public service and private media operators plays a fundamental role in a democratic society. The resolution insists on the specific contribution of public service broadcasting, whose mission is to cultivate – regardless of commercial considerations or political influence – a high quality public sphere that is freely and universally accessible on all platforms. The resolution also notes that transparency of ownership of private broadcasters should be guaranteed and encourages the implementation of the Media Pluralism Monitor. Relying on the Commission’s broadcasting communication of July 2009 and on recommendations of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament plainly confirms the legitimacy of the online presence of PSB for the provision of their traditional services as well as new services on the Internet.
How should Member States define the remit, organisation and funding of the PSB in order to ensure a fair competition on the digital media market? The European Parliament acknowledges that finding the appropriate balance remains an open question but advances some suggestions to mark out a path towards a win-win situation for all. In a few words: now is a time for discussion and innovation. Experience and good practices need to be shared, for instance through the cooperation of national media regulators within the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities. Public and private broadcasters are invited to cooperate with publishers in order to launch innovative projects in relation to content-sharing and cross-referencing. The most decisive negotiations, however, will involve more than the traditional media sector: as the resolution urges in conclusion, Europe needs to devise “ways in which search engines and internet service providers could contribute to the financing of content creation”.
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