The most trusted news sources? The providers of children’s educational programming? The curators, funders, and distributors of national cultural products? The safeguards of minority voices? The answer: Public service broadcasters. The list may seem idealistic, but applies at least partly to many national and publicly funded media organizations.
Public service broadcasting (PSB) and its digital reiteration, public service media (PSM) organizations have for almost a century been key national institutions in most European countries. They have a strong presence also elsewhere, especially in the former Commonwealth countries. The BBC and other Western PSBs have served as models in many a media development project in emerging democracies.
Despite the broad success of public media, today, public service media institutions worldwide—from Poland to Australia, and Denmark to Switzerland, are facing serious challenges.
Commercial competitors and political adversaries assert that PSM outlets waste public funds and flood the market with biased content. Regardless of differing cultural or socio-political contexts, the pressures to PSM seem eerily similar.
Recently the Swiss voted on the topic of cutting funding to public broadcasting. Ahead of the vote civil society actors created a major campaign to combat the proposal and, fortunately, the Swiss rejected the proposal. The Danish were not as lucky. A Danish public broadcaster just announced cuts of 400 staff members, seen as a move forced by the government.
A commonly used argument by detractors is that due to globalization and digitalization of communication, public media de facto exists online, offering an infinite diversity of content. Why waste public resources on institutions of the mass media era? These critics tend to bypass any negatives of online offerings, such as the phenomena of filter bubbles and viral disinformation.
It may be true that many mature PSM organizations are organizationally heavy and costly. Many have long enjoyed the luxury of license fee-based funding. Now the trend is to transition to budgetary funding that becomes more volatile, based on the political winds of change. PSM organizations that have been a result of development projects often suffer from attempts to translate foreign ideals and practices too directly into the local context. And it is hard to secure sustainable funding models for them.
The challenges for PSB and PSM seem enormous—but they also highlight opportunities for funders to engage in impactful and meaningful ways to support quality journalism, national and local cultures, and media literacy.
Funders can support mature PSM organizations either directly or via collaborations using PSM as quality curators.
For example, foundations can be key partners when PSM organizations seek to create direct social impact. A case in point is the Finnish Yle. It created a mental health themed multimedia drama program for youth, together with nonprofits advocating mental health issues. Me (“We”) Foundation, dedicated to combatting social inequality and exclusion of children, supported the effort by funding a related chat helpline. The program and collaboration was an immense success: It not only engaged and helped individual young people, but its popularity highlighted an important and often ignored social issue of mental health and youth—and it brought the otherwise elusive young audiences to public service content.
Mature PSM organizations are not obsolete and, in these time of diminishing independent journalism around the world, they need to be supported as they evolve to focus on new audiences, impact and experimentation. Funder involvement can and should expand public media’s social impact and bring in new partners to provide expertise and reach.
When public funding for PSM diminishes, and remits become more narrow, opportunities to use the mission, expertise, and experience of these organizations are lost. After all, many of them offer the only platforms of non-commercial innovation and experimentation, not only as producers but also as curators of independent content creators.
Direct support for PSB/PSM organizations might not be the most obvious way (although in the United States, the very system of public media includes foundation and audience funding). But PSM organizations, whether they are big or small, mature or new, often act as conveners of multi-stakeholder projects: From public service announcements to innovation hackathons to fact- checking initiatives to media literacy programs to cultural festivals. Those are, in particular, possibilities to offer indirect support if not to PSM institutions, then to their partners: to strengthen new collaborations and to utilize the tradition that is public service broadcasting.
By Minna Horowitz, Docent at the University of Helsinki and Fellow at the Institute for International Communication at St. John’s University
This essay appears in Global Media Philanthropy: What Funders Need to Know About Data, Trends and Pressing Issues Facing the Field. With so many pressing issues affecting the media funding space as well as specific regional considerations around grantmaking strategies and priorities, Media Impact Funders turned to experts from the field and asked them to share insights across a range of media issues. Listening to those working on the ground is essential for understanding challenges and opportunities in a global context, and these essays offer critical insights that funders need to understand in the global media ecosystem. Opinions offered by essay authors are their own.