Transcription 1998

In international discussions about the media one of the words most often associated with public service broadcasting is “crisis”. Yet in Sweden today, as in other Western European countries, this is less the case than in the past. Over the last five years or so, television in Sweden has made significant progress in stabilizing itself, financially and institutionally. This is gratifying to see. At the same time, the present situation is hardly characterized by business as usual. While “crisis” may not be on people’s lips in Sweden to the same degree as in the past, there is still a lingering sense of uncertainty. At bottom, of course, the questions – in Sweden as elsewhere have to do with the basic raison d’être of public broadcasting: what is its role, what are its visions today, in an historical context very different from when it was first conceived and launched?
These fundamental issues are still with us, and the qualified optimism I report from Sweden is by no means shared internationally. In Europe the situation is varied (McQuail & Siune, 1998); Michael Tracey (1998), for example, virtually arrives at an obituary for public service broadcasting. However, at the end of this wake, he still manages to detect some life in the alleged corpse, and affirms that we simply cannot bury it. Its importance demands that we find ways to keep it among the living and to aim it in the right direction. Tracey does a good job of cataloguing the various impediments to public broadcasting today, and highlights the profound difficulties of clarifying its mission. Yet this is what we must endeavor to do – and continue to do.

During the difficult years, much of the debate around public service focused on issues of financing, details of regulation, proposals for reorganization. These topics were and are clearly of central concern, but now that in the Swedish context things have settled down to some degree, I feel that it is opportune to try to go beyond the mere reiteration of classic principles. We need to look at the public service vision against the backdrop of the current historical juncture. My presentation here, making use of Swedish horizons, is a contribution to that end.

It is important to keep in mind that the notion of public service is at bottom a prismatic one: it refracts our vision in slightly different ways as we turn it and apply it to different issues and concerns. Its meaning and significance will vary somewhat with the circumstances. I say this to indicate that I will be taking a particular path here – enacting a specific turn of the prism.

My point of departure is the inexorable link between public service and the democratic character of society. However, I wish to extend the conventional, largely formal, notions of democracy which have been in circulation in regard to public service. I want to develop a perspective on democracy which brings to the fore its cultural dimensions, its anchoring in the practices of everyday life. This takes me into the realm of civic culture. It is my view that by expanding our understanding of democracy in this way we can shed more light on the role and position of public service in a democratic society. In short, if one of the enduring visions of public service is a democratic society, than one of its tasks must be to vitalize the civic culture.

I will first briefly review some of the key features in the evolution of public service television in Sweden and sketch its present situation, against a brief backdrop of the social and cultural landscape. I then take up the themes of democracy, civic culture, and citizenship. I then return to public service television and address the topics of commercialization and popularization, and their relationship to civic culture. I conclude with some reflections about the impending developments of digital television and what these may mean for public service.

Making the transition

As in other countries, the advent of commercial television completely altered the circumstances for public service. There existed a non-commercial monopoly consisting of two television channels until the late 1980’s when satellite channels began beaming into the country. These channels really had minor impact on viewing patterns. At this time only a small portion of the population had access to cable systems, and satellite dishes were quite rare.

One of them, TV3, which was beamed from London in the Swedish language, did attract a relatively large audience. The major impact of TV3, however, was to open the door for the idea of a terrestrial commercial channel. In part the reasoning was that without a national commercial channel, a good deal of advertising revenue would in the future seep out of the country to such foreign commercial channels. More important, however, were the ideological arguments. Political parties of the center and right, as well as industrial and financial interests, were not only clamoring for a commercial station, but also in many cases attacking the fundamental premises for public broadcasting. Market forces were evoked as the only justifiable and feasible way to finance broadcasting. Deregulation was in the air. At this time, Sweden was caught up in a major turn to the right; the social democrats lost the 1991 election and a bourgeois coalition came to power. The social democrats did not have a carefully developed policy on broadcasting and culture and it could be said that they were doing a lot of improvising on broadcasting issues before they were voted out (only to return three years later).

In retrospect one may well argue that this turned out to be not too bad: with a minimum of grand vision and a lot of pragmatic maneuvering, they paved the way for the introduction of the commercial terrestrial channel TV4. It was awarded a concession and signed a detailed contract with the state. From the standpoint of public service, this development has proven to be both positive and very interesting. There were of course many voices expressing concern and even distaste for the advent of commercial TV within Sweden. Admittedly, TV4 was somewhat of an enfant terrible at first: it chalked up a long list of violations against its contract (interrupting films with commercials, aiming some ads at children, etc.) and some of its journalistic ventures were quite brash. However, TV4 has ‘matured’, even if it still maintains a popular profile. I will come back to this below.

Thus today, we have a mixed system with three terrestrial channels: the non-commercial SVT 1 and 2 and the commercial TV4. The non-commercial channels are now cooperating with each other instead of competing (cf Hultén, 1997; Edin, 1998). The Swedish language satellite channel TV3 is also part of the landscape, as of course is the array of other satellite channels, though these channels have much less reach and still smaller viewerships than the terrestrial channels. The obvious point of interest here is how the non-commercial channels have adjusted to commercial competition. Yet another interesting issue is how the major commercial channel has adjusted to a socio-cultural climate which has been so shaped by the public service tradition.

Television today

TV4 has been very successful in attracting audiences, showing a steady increase since its start, which seems now to have reached a plateau. With a monopoly on national television advertising, TV4 has done very well economically. Like the two non-commercial channels, TV4 reaches all households in Sweden. Looked at from the perspective of market shares, the statistics are as follows: SVT1 and SVT2, both hover around 25 percent, while TV4 has a slight edge with 28 percent; TV3 has 9 percent. Given the limited dissemination of cable and of satellite dishes, transnational programming does not have full penetration. TV3, for example, can be seen by only 56 percent of Swedish households, Eurosport by 46 percent, MTV by 35 percent and CNN by only 20 percent. The remaining satellite channels have, by comparison, small penetration and even smaller market shares, hovering around a few percent.

Looking at programming category statistics for a moment can further fill in the picture. If the three terrestrial channels have a fairly even share of the viewing public, we should note that this is not a neat reflection of actual broadcast hours. TV4 has many more transmission hours during an average week: SVT1 transmits about 70 hours per week, SVT2 about 80 hours, and TV4 115, while TV3 has about 120 hours (1995 statistics). More program hours, in other words, do not per se translate into more viewing hours. Looking at programming categories as percents of total transmission time, we see the following (1996 statistics):































Children and youth
















If we take together the categories of ‘news’ and ‘non-fiction’, TV4 has a respectable 37 percent. TV2 is the ‘serious’ channel, with 62 percent news and non-fiction. TV4 has, in terms of hours, twice the fiction of SVT1 and of SVT2, yet the extent of its news programming lies between that of the two non-commercial channels. This commercial station has a number of impressive investigative journalism and discussion programs in its schedule. All this suggests that one does not attract the largest television audience in Sweden by merely developing a thoroughly entertainment-oriented profile. The satellite channel TV3 has chosen that route, but its success is modest in comparison.

Clearly, however, TV4 does have a more popular profile compared to the non-commercial channels. Here we see the policy dilemmas faced by the non-commercial channels: given that TV4 has been such a success, how should the non-commercial channels respond? Indeed, how have they responded? We can emphasize that the response has not at all been what alarmists had feared. Program statistics indicate that since 1993 news and non-fiction have actually increased on SVT2, each category by an impressive 10 percent. Non-fiction has increased on SVT1 somewhat in this same time span, while fiction has actually decreased. We must conclude here that the non-commercial channels in fact responded to the commercial challenge in part by increasing their programming for news and current affairs, solidifying their public service profiles. And in the process they have managed to retain large audiences.

We can look at another criteria, namely diversity, which is one of the pillars of public service. Diversity of programming can be measured within a channel and for a whole television system. Research has shown that the two non-commercial channels continue to maintain an impressive level of diversity, with many programs clearly intended for only small segments of the viewing population – even if many of these programs have been relegated to less convenient viewing times. SVT 1 and 2 are clearly doing the best in reflecting the growing heterogeneity of society, with their emphasis on minority interest programming. TV4’s diversity is clearly lower. Within the context of the whole television system, however, it can be said that TV4’s more broadly popular programming relieves the non-commercial channels of having to pursue that strategy. A division of labor between the channels has emerged, but without creating a highly polarized situation.

Thus, the 1990’s can be seen as a period of successful readjustment for Sweden’s public service television. SVT1 and SVT2 continue to maintain strong public service profiles, and have even increased their role as media of news and current affairs. TV4, for its part, has found that a high level of journalism and non-fiction are part of a successful popular formula.

Popular public service?

The fact that TV4 has a concessions contract with the state raises some ambiguity about its status. It has to operate within a highly regulated framework. Part of its revenues are siphoned off to help finance SVT1 and 2. Should TV4 be seen as a quasi public service? Could a channel such as TV4 be seen as a ‘new’ medium of public service, a piece of a larger national puzzle? These questions cannot be answered with full certitude at the moment; we must wait and see how the situation develops. However, some critics raise the issue of how TV4’s popular formats in the area of journalism mesh with the traditions of public service. TV4’s journalism is by no means ‘high brow’, yet neither is it ‘low brow’; it lands in between. How should we perceive this in the perspective of public service?

As I have argued elsewhere (Dahlgren, 1995) we should avoid knee-jerk negative reactions against journalistic programs with a popular bent. Popularization certainly can involve the pitfalls of trivialization and sensationalism, but it can also make news and non-fiction more accessible and more involving for many viewers. Thus the main news broadcast of TV4 uses an informal style which tends to make less use of official sources, and emphasizes, for example, the impact of politics on everyday life rather than the strategic gamesmanship of politics. It clearly contains less dense information when compared to the news programs of SVT1 and 2. Yet, I would argue that TV4’s news programs’ more popular formats have an important role to play in the overall mix: they contribute to a diversity of journalistic styles within the overall television output in Sweden. They invite involvement for many people who may well find the news on the non-commercial channels too difficult or too dry. These viewers may be getting fewer hard facts, but at the same time they are being made aware of what topics are on the public agenda.

If we look at other kinds of programs within non-fiction, such as talk shows, we have seen a real explosion in recent years, even on SVT1 and 2. Some programs on TV4 seem to prioritize spectacular arguments and inflamed controversy over substantial discussions. Yet, the importance of many of these programs – when they are at their best – is that they invite involvement from citizens; they promote discussion. Also, these talk shows can take up a variety of topics and experiences that are of importance to people in their everyday lives, such as moral issues, questions of identity and themes around personal relationships. Just the visibility of such topics and of people who are concerned about them can, in and of itself, be a positive force: it accords legitimacy to people’s experiences. While these particular programs are not always successful as journalistic endeavors, and some have a short life, it is important for television to remain open to new program formats. Television must always be looking for new ways to resonate with its viewers.

This includes public service broadcasting. While it should certainly continue to hold the high ground of traditional, serious journalism, and there is much to be said for the general division of labor that has emerged, it must be open to new formats. Journalism formats do evolve on public service channels, though slowly. Public service needs to consider more the issue of addressing different segments of the population with different ‘voices’, using complementary and alternative forms of representation in its journalistic endeavors.

The social and cultural landscape

In sum, we have a television situation in Sweden that, in a global perspective, looks not too bad. Institutionally the dust has settled and the smoke has cleared – for the moment. The histories of public service within different countries share many features, but there are of course many national variations. My intent here is not to export a ‘Swedish model’, although I hope some features of our experience can certainly be of interest abroad. To round out the picture, let me mention a few key factors about the general social and cultural landscape in which broadcasting is operating, which will lead me into the topics of democracy and civic culture.

The theme I underscore here will be familiar, if perhaps somewhat surprising when applied to Sweden (old stereotypes tend to linger!): social fragmentation. We can locate the dynamics of this chiefly within four mutually reciprocal domains: economy, politics, ethnicity and what I call cultural choice.

In economic terms, Sweden is an established welfare society, though its welfare has been drastically dismantled it in the past decade. Unemployment figures are stagnating at levels comparable to the 1930’s. Class divisions are growing, the mechanisms of global capitalism are increasingly deferred to in the political realm. Our entrance into the European Union has not brought with it the prosperity its promoters promised.

Politically, Sweden is in the process of moving away from the basic corporatist model that has prevailed since the social democrats came to power in the 1930’s. In this model, political and civil life was well organized around party affiliation, labor unions, employer associations and classic popular movements such as sports. This model was predicated upon the predictability of political preference and behavior: For example, with centralized wage negotiations and the link between the unions and the social democratic party, votes could be promised and delivered, collective contracts could be signed. Today, party loyalty, class identification, and movement membership are not only less predictable, but also generally declining, especially among the young. They are not drawn to the traditional institutions and the established rhetorical formulations as before. There is an ‘anti-political’ sentiment among many young people, a distancing from the established political arena.

In regard to ethnicity, Sweden is a society that until recent decades has been very homogeneous. Today some 20 percent of the population has immigrant background. Sweden, like many other countries, has now a mix of dominant, immigrant and indigenous ethnic groups (though the Same, or Lapps, are a very small population). In Malmö in the south, Sweden’s third largest city, about one third of the population has immigrant background. Like other West European countries, we witness the growth of high-rise ghettos in the suburbs of the cities. In some schools north of Stockholm, the mother tongues of the pupils number over twenty. Value systems and religious views are often much at variance with the dominant culture. Discrimination in the areas of employment and housing is pervasive and well-documented, while at the same time progressive forces throughout society are trying to counter such trends.

From a perspective of cultural choice, Sweden manifests similar patterns of differentiation as in other industrialized nations. While Sweden is coping with a limping economy, it still manifests a very high level of consumption, not least in the area of media technology and products. (For example, the number of cellular phones – nearly 300 per 1000 inhabitants – is among the highest in the world). Generally, advanced consumer culture fosters ‘nichification’, or even ‘neo-tribalism’, as some observers put it, as the pluralization of tastes, interests, and life styles in late modern society accelerates. Production of everything from homes to sneakers is moving away from the standardized and toward the individualized. The media, not least television, both reflect and foster this trend.

It is easy to see how these domains of economy, politics, ethnicity and culture reinforce each other. The result is the erosion of the unified and homogeneous national society on which public service was originally predicated. There is no longer one audience, but many. To this I would add that since about the mid-1980’s – one could take the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 as a symbolic turning point – many Swedes find themselves in various degrees of what I call ‘domestic cultural shock’. They have difficulty orienting themselves in this period of rapid social transition. The older coordinates are less helpful today: is Sweden a welfare society? What does social democracy mean today? One of our sacred cows, our ‘neutrality’ during both the Second World War and the Cold War has been revealed to have been profoundly compromised and it now has become merely an exploded myth. Scandals about Sweden’s illicit international arms deals, the endless revelation of national political corruption, the traumas of immigration, the loss of considerable sovereignty to the European Union, and generally a damaged faith in the ‘system’ and in the future, makes many people wonder what Sweden is today and where it is heading.

Now, I do not cite an inventory such as this to elicit sympathy from the outside world; in a global comparison Sweden does not qualify as a hardship case. But the developments I refer to are significant because they are real and important in the Swedish context: they point to an experiential reality which shapes the perceptions of its people and the context of the media.

If television has now arrived at what appears to be a stable situation, there is nothing to suggest that social and cultural change will simply come to a stop. Indeed, having arrived at this point in the late 1990’s, public service television in Sweden must now look ahead to a society that is in dynamic flux and where economic, political, ethnic and cultural factors will continue to accentuate fragmentation and differentiation. In this regard, Sweden is certainly comparable to many other Western societies. The historical present is in transition: nothing stands still, and public service will have to continue to adapt itself to new conditions. How will public service define itself? What traditions will it try to pass on, what modifications will be made interpreting its role?

Democracy’s horizons: retrieval and renewal

If public service is a prismatic concept, then certainly one of the angles of refraction must be towards democracy. This is fundamental both for its legitimation at the societal level and its coherence at the level of daily organizational practices. We can readily retrieve the notion of democracy via the idea of universalism embedded within public service. Not only should all citizens have access to such broadcasting, but the programming should, as far as possible, be aimed at everyone, in the sense of striving to address the needs and interests of the many different groups which comprise society. Public service is premised as a right for all members of society, i.e. for all citizens. Here we have a sort of bedrock, where the principles of public service interlock with the fundamentals of democracy. This is important, this is basic, this should be reiterated.

There is a danger, at least at the rhetorical level, that such reiteration of democracy as a first principle for public service after a while takes on the character of ritualistic incantation, of a mantra. We pay lip service to “democracy”, which, like motherhood, everyone can unreservedly support, but after a while loses its evocative power. Perhaps we would be wise to not over-use the word. Also, the understanding of democracy evoked in such discussions easily becomes a bit stilted, a bit formalistic; it is a view of democracy that we learn in the classroom. There is absolutely nothing wrong with classroom definitions as far as they go, but what I would suggest is that if we are to retrieve from democracy something that we can find compelling and useful for public service broadcasting in the context of society today, we need to go further.
I find it a useful entry into the theme of democracy to make a simple distinction of perspective. On the one hand democracy is seen as an institutionalized system (the classroom version I referred to above). This view emphasizes formal and legal dimensions such as the branches of government, elections, and the participation of citizens in the system. On the other hand, democracy must also be understood as a form of culture, a civic culture, anchored in everyday life. This perspective focuses attention on values, norms, practices, and frames of reference. The first view leans heavily on political science, the second makes extensive use of contemporary cultural theory and research.

The two perspectives are not in competition with each other; rather democracy must be understood as an interplay between a formal system and a civic culture. For democracy to work, both are mutually dependent. This is a line of argument similar to that proposed by exponents of the civil society argument (cf.Keane, 1988; Cohen and Arato, 1992). The basic reasoning is that the state and political system require a cultural domain that reproduces and renews democratic values, socializing citizens and preparing those who will specifically enter into the political arena. Civil society, on the other hand, is dependent on the state to guarantee basic rights and conditions (to free speech, to assembly, as well as socioeconomic regulation, etc.) which make civil society possible. While the notion of civil society is beset with conceptual and empirical difficulties, as many have pointed out (cf. Resnick, 1997), these fundamental points about it run parallel my view of civic culture, which I find to be less theoretically problematic and more helpful here.

The idea of a civic culture points to the issue of some kind of unity in the face of increasing social fragmentation and differentiation. Difference as such has been high on the public agenda over the past decade. It has perhaps found its most vocal articulation as many nations come to acknowledge – and try to come to grips with – their multicultural character. All this clearly puts strains on public service broadcasting. Such situations raise not only practical issues about how to address national audiences as they become increasingly heterogeneous while budgets are limited, but also normative ones: what view, which versions of the national should be fostered? The axes of assimilation and separateness, inclusion and exclusion, the national and the global, problematize not only the political system but the notion of the nation state as well. The politics of difference flow into the practices of public service.

Within political philosophy, these developments have prompted a renewal of reflection about the nature and goals of democracy itself. (There is already a large literature here; some key texts are: Taylor and Guttman, 1992; Kymlicka, 1995; Spinner, 1994. See also Favell, 1998, for a handy introduction to several themes and authors). Without delving into all the issues and perspectives, the upshot of these endeavors for the present discussion is that they shift the footing away from some of the traditional assumptions about democracy as a system and more towards its anchoring in a civic culture.

Civic culture: democracy’s everyday life

How does public service television foster a civic culture when the national culture and viewing audiences have become so pluralist? How can it deal with this tension? First of all, a civic culture does not presuppose homogeneity among its citizens. Fundamentally, a civic culture exists in people’s shared values and commitments to democracy, a kind of civic loyalty to the democratic vision (Mouffe, 1993; Clarke 1996). This means adherence to both the ideals and the procedures of democracy. This commonality can be manifested by social and cultural groups who are very different from each other. Civic culture can be exercised and expressed in many different ways.

For television, this means in both non-fiction and fictional programming there is a need for an even stronger emphasis on the growing social and cultural heterogeneity. This involves offering images, frames of reference, and value commitments which reflect a broad panorama of daily life and experience. It means making visible, giving voice to, and legitimating various groups and divergent views in terms of democratic themes, accentuating diversity and not trying to hide contention, where it exists. It means pluralizing the composition and backgrounds of journalists, editors and producers, a trend that is already developing as production is increasingly farmed out to smaller, independent production houses.

For example, Sweden is culturally in the process of moving from an ethnic understanding of Swedishness to a civic one. But it is difficult for many Swedes to let go of attributes of name, skin color, and speech in classifying who is and who is not Swedish. Media visibility is very important in this regard.

Another example: the democratic ideal of gender equality meets with resistance among certain immigrant groups in Sweden. Who can say for sure at what point assertion of this ideal by the dominant culture veers into a form of internal cultural imperialism? Yet it is important that such topics are addressed in the programming, and in ways which make them relevant for the lives of these groups. In my view, how we go about resolving such contentions is at least as important as the resolutions (if any) that we arrive at. A robust civic culture, committed to democracy, assumes pluralism and conflicts.

At the same time, and in opposition to this emphasis on diversity, there is also a need for a more tangible sense of community, a more concrete experience of we-ness. The ideals and commitments to democracy must have a home in the social world, they cannot merely hover about in our heads. Here we cannot side-step the idea of the nation as a frame and as the location for civic culture. Public service broadcasting is inseparable from the national project, but it must adapt, of course, as ‘the nation’ historically evolves. The nation is not only internally multicultural, but it is also porous in relation to global realities. There are much more transborder flows of all kinds. Yet, even in this late modern world, nationalism remains a very compelling basis for identity for most people. Public service must continue to help construct versions of community at the national level, which of course is not to be confused with the dark sides of nationalism.

We seemingly have a contradiction here between a plural civic culture and an integrating national setting. The resolution, hopefully, will be found at the level of people’s identities. One of the hallmarks of late modern society is the pluralization of our ‘selves’. Without getting tangled up in any postmodern theorizing, we can simply take note that in our daily lives we operate in a multitude of different ‘worlds’ or realities; we carry within us different sets of knowledge, assumptions, rules and roles for different circumstances. Some of these elements reside more at the core of our identity, others more on the periphery. Yet, all of us are to varying degrees composite people.

This idea becomes pivotal in the multicultural setting. Muticulturalism means ‘many cultures’, but we should see this as referring not just to the nation, but to individuals as well. We need to accentuate and cultivate what Michael Walzer terms our individual ‘hyphenated selves’: as Swedish AND Iranian, Muslim AND British, and so on.

The idea of composite identities also pertains to citizenship. We are used to thinking of citizenship in relation to the formal, systemic view of democracy. A citizen is a legal category, with rights and obligations. Yet, citizenship can also be seen as a dimension of individual identity. One experiences oneself as a member and potential participant in not only a particular community, but several. Thus, one can carry an ethnic identity as a Greek-Swede, but also as a citizen of the Swedish nation and of the Greek community in Sweden. In the role of citizen, the principles of democracy pertain to one’s everyday involvements, be it in one’s neighborhood or in national political issues.

Public service television needs to promote our various identities: national and particular, citizen and ethnic member. Yet it must do so in a doubly centripetal manner: it needs to promote loyalty to a democratic civic culture, and a pluralistic national community. Schematically, I would summarize the tasks as follows:

To provide a shared communicative space which thematizes democracy at the level of people’s everyday lives. This includes a shared public culture in the media, and the knowledge necessary to understand and participate as citizens – what Graham and Davies (1997) term ‘common knowledge’.

To ensure what Charles Taylor (1992) has eloquently argued for, namely visibility and recognition of minorities. In a related vein, Michael Walzer (1997) speaks of ‘toleration’. If tolerance is an attitude, toleration is the sum of the practices which achieve it.

To ensure cultural boundary-crossing in this communicative space. A pluralistic society does not consist of mutually exclusive groups and communities, but of shifting and overlapping constellations, where the plural is often embodied within the individual, within families. Thus, while public service must attend to the separate communities to the extent possible, it needs also to address and promote the hybrids which are emerging, especially the co-mingling of the national culture with all the particular cultures.

This is admittedly a tall order, and we would be wise to maintain a realistic grasp of the do-able. Yet it is important that our ideals point us in a clear direction and challenge us in the process. As has often been argued (cf Raboy, 1996), the audiences for public service broadcasting are a public, not a market. This in turn means that public service must treat its viewers as citizens, not just as audiences. Programming must have an eye to offering significance and serving people’s lives – including the civic culture – beyond the site and circumstances of reception. Public service has, in other words, a catalytic function. It aims to engender the good society. It can do this not least by enhancing the experience of citizenship, by touching upon this aspect of peoples’ identities and their varied experiences of community, of belonging – even in the face of a rampant commercial climate.

In this, its goals are different from commercial broadcasting, where the logic of the market says that merely enticing people to watch the screen counts as mission accomplished. Robert Putnam, a strong defender of the civic culture (1993) observes how commercial television in the USA is a factor in the erosion of a civic culture. Given the sheer number of hours spent in front of the screen, people are less able to participate in the associations and activities that constitute a civic culture (1995). In the face of commercial televison, public service will always be but one set of voices in a larger media environment. It is important to underscore what these voices can say and do that others cannot or will not: to stress the shared, the common, but also the divergent, the plural, while underscoring belonging, participation.

Digital developments

The launching of TV4 can be seen, nonetheless, as a development within the ‘old’ media order: terrestrial broadcasting has been with us a good part of this century. There are, of course, ‘newer’ technological and institutional developments that already have a sizeable history, such as satellite and cable transmissions, and there are still newer forms being launched, such as digital television. Historical circumstances have been such that public service has largely stayed within the domain of terrestrial broadcasting, leaving cable and satellite for the commercial market. This is not the case in regard to digital television. Already two of the world’s most respected public broadcasters, the BBC and Japan’s NHK, are involved in the planning and preparation for the advent of – and transition to – digital television. What will this mean for the traditions of public service? What could it mean for the character of civic culture? Obviously at this point we have no clear answers, since these will depend to a large extent on how policy in this area is shaped.

The technology of digital television must be understood as part of a pervasive development in the media industries towards a convergence toward a common digital ‘language’ for all text, sound, still- and moving images media. Broadcasting, telecommunications and computer technologies are converging; the TV screen and the computer are moving towards each other (though we cannot say whether they will become one or not). The development of the digital standard, which is increasingly replacing the analogue, is fundamental for the emergence of what is called ‘multi-media’.

More specifically for television, the digital technology makes more efficient use of frequency spectrum, being able to compress about four channels into the same space that analogue broadcasting requires for one channel, if the same level of definitional quality is maintained. This heralds the possibility for more programming, more reprise transmissions, more schedule flexibility. Alternatively, digital television can transmit attractive ‘wide screen’ visuals, which take up more frequency space than the older analogue broadcasts. Signals can more easily be more encoded without reduction in quality for purposes of user payment-based decoding (subscription channels and pay-per-view). Digital television is shaping up as a strongly commercial development. The distribution can take place via terrestrial transmission, cable-TV networks, satellite, the telecom network, as well as the newer fiber optics cable. The policy issues proliferate.

One of the definitive features of the digital technology is its capacity for interactivity. In regard to television, this means more possibility for adaptation to individual preferences: arrangements such as pay-per-view and delayed broadcast open up the door to more tailor-made output, shaped by individual audience members. Possibilities for video-on-demand, and the use of broadcasting companies’ own archives as video libraries also enhance the options available for viewers. The interactive domain readily opens up via digital television, with distance learning games, home shopping and banking, social services, and Internet-link-ups all quite technically feasible.

At a recent conference, the BBC’s former deputy director-general, Robert Phillis (1997), reaffirmed the BBC’s commitment to the traditional ideals of public service in the digital age. He spoke of new services being developed: a 24-hour news channel, the use of wide screen for selected programs, the use of subsidiary transmissions to augment the two main channels, more educational output. At the same time, he spoke of developing further the BBC’s commercial activities, so that this sector would account for 15 percent of the company’s total income, up from the present 5 percent. This is presented as a way of further stabilizing the BBC’s financial situation. The use of pay-for, themed, subscription channels, based on drama, life styles, entertainment, etc. is a major part of the plan. Not surprisingly, some critics (cf. Goodwin, 1997) have argued that the really motivating principle here is commercial, not public service.

Major media actors – Murdoch, Kirch in Germany, Berlusconi in Italy, and an array of others within several sectors of the media industries, are positioning themselves. At present, there is a good deal of economic uncertainty. The basic premise is that people will be willing to pay to have the specific program they want at a time that they choose, with the strategic use of wide screen transmissions as an extra pull.

Shelton’s (1998) journalistic overview of this budding industry underscores that this premise cannot be taken for granted: so far, considerable money has already been lost in digital TV investments. There are big questions: how many will purchase the digital ‘set-top boxes’ needed for analogue TV receivers to make use of digital transmission? At what point should one cease with analogue transmission entirely and expect or demand that everyone now has fully digital TV receivers? One can only speculate. Yet a lucrative potential is seen here. There is a sense of an impending take-off. It is not surprising that public service broadcasters, who recently had to adapt themselves to a new media landscape in the wake of deregulation, satellite channels and commercial terrestrial channels, are seriously thinking about how to respond to the next impending stage of media development.

With digital television we will no doubt see a further fragmentation of the audience, but at the same time there are real possibilities for it to further strengthen public service, to serve as a centripetal force for a pluralistic communicative space and a vehicle for a vitalized civic culture. At the risk of seemingly looking through a rear-view mirror, I would suggest that digital television will do this best on the basis of its continuing character as television, rather than on its resemblance to the interactivity of the personal computer equipped with a modem.

It is easy to begin fantasizing about the use of digital television as a way of enhancing communication between the viewer/citizen and the social world outside his or her home. For along with services and games being made available, one might speculate that newer forms of civic and political communication might emerge. From responding to discussion and debate programs, to various forms of opinion polling, to actual referenda being held: all will be technically possible and no doubt attempted to various degrees. However, we should be selective with our enthusiasm here. There is a risk that such practices may foster a form of ‘hyperdemocracy’ or ‘push-button democracy’, where the speed of the response that is technically possible may serve to actually undercut that which is so fundamental to a civic culture, namely real discussion, interaction, reflection. Faster is not always better.

At the same time, I am not too worried about this use of digital television, since I would wager that it will in the long run turn out to be a minor aspect of it. It can be helpful here to make a simple distinction between what I call mild and intense interactivity. Mild interactivity is one characterized by ‘strategic selection’: using digital television to select favorite programming and at times which are convenient. Intense interactivity is best illustrated by the chatting of Internet discussion groups. Television is a largely a low involvement medium, whose entertainment value prevails over other purposes. The odds are against intense interactivity.

What the digital revolution offers public service television is an opportunity to do more with the medium, as television. The mild interactivity of strategic selection will be important: Certainly wide screen will be nice for some programming, but the possibility of more frequency space, to be used for more programming, more diversity, more reprises of key programs, less collision between channels, and video archives, is very promising. The civic culture will be best served by this expansion of public service’s capacities.

To realize this potential will necessitate clear-sighted policy initiatives. In Sweden, the policy discussions have barely begun (Jonsson and Ulin, 1998 have taken the first step), but it is obvious that policy will have to explicitly link the realm of information technology with that of broadcasting. There are major principles, like universalism, involved, and there are major issues, like financing, to be dealt with. Digital television, like analogue, will consist of a melange of commercial and non-commercial elements. Perceptions as to what is the ideal mix and the politically achievable one will certainly vary between countries. Yet it is imperative that policy making on both the national and international level do their utmost to strengthen the viability of public service and the vitality of the civic culture in this transition. There is a lot at stake.


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