The Mythology of Commercial Broadcasting and the Contemporary Crisis of Public Broadcasting (1997)

One of the most striking developments of the past decade has been the decline of public service broadcasting systems everywhere. By public service broadcasting, I mean a system that is nonprofit and noncommercial, supported by public funds, ultimately accountable in some legally defined way to the citizenry, aimed at providing a service to the entire population, and one which does not apply commercial principles as the primary means to determine its programming.

To some extent, this decline is because of the dramatic increase in the number of television channels. To an even greater extent, however, the decline of public service broadcasting is part and parcel of the current attack on all non commercial public service institutions and values. For those committed to actual participatory democracy it is crucial to protect and expand public service broadcasting as well as the broader sphere of nonprofit and noncommercial media. To do so requires that the very issue of broadcasting (and media) ownership be made a public issue. We need not only to get resources and institutional protection for public broadcasting; we also need to reform it mightily, so that it serves more directly as an agent of democracy, rather than bureaucracy.

The struggle on behalf of public service broadcasting also needs to drop the pretense of being a politically neutral exercise and be honest with itself and the public. Media reform can only take place if it is part of broader social movements to democratize the whole of society. Because the commercial media system is so closely intertwined with the corporate political economy, one cannot help but challenge the broader political economy when one attacks the media status quo. And because the media system has become increasingly global in scope, political activism must likewise become transnational.

1. The Historical Struggle for Public Service Broadcasting

With the advent of digital broadcasting and the Internet, there is no longer a great scarcity in channels. Neoliberals argue that if there is any public demand for something in the current digital environment, it will show up on the Intemet or elsewhere. Accordingly, the neoliberals argue, whatever defense existed in the past for public broadcasting no longer exists. But the neoliberal approach is a self-serving way to phrase the question. It invariably points to private control, regardless of the social implications. The democratic approach, on the other hand, is to ask ‘What does society need to get from its broadcasting system? What values does it seek to preserve and promote? What are the technological and economic possibilities?” and finally, “What type of system will be most likely to fulfill these goals?” In the democratic approach, the shape of broadcasting is a public issue to be determined through study and debate.

When radio broadcasting emerged following the First World War, it presented a distinct problem. How would it be used? Who would control it? What was it for? Two systems, the British and the American, became the archetypes employed in virtually all discussions of broadcasting policy in democratic nations. The debate had a distinct international edge, however: broadcasting respected no political boundaries, requiring international regulation. Nowhere was the international dimension of broadcast policymaking more apparent than in Canada. Not only did the United States play a critical role in the formation of Canadian policy: Canada also played an important role in the fight for control of U.S. broadcasting. The Canadian Radio League, formed in the 1930s by Graham Spry, was a key advocate for public service broadcasting in Canada, and the League’s lobbying led directly to the creation of the CBC. Few, however, are aware that the Radio League established close relations with broadcast reformers in the United States.

Spry repeatedly emphasized the existence of the U.S. broadcast reform movement as discrediting the notion that commercial broadcasting was popularly embraced by listeners; American activists were equally involved in Canadian debates. The Canadian and U.S. broadcast reformers of the early 1930s are of interest not only because of theit clear historical importance. In their work, we have the contours of a sophisticated critique of commercial broadcasting, in certain respects as valid today as it was then. These activists recognized, from the very beginning, that theirs was a political struggle with clear global dimensions.

2. The Current Crisis of Public Broadcasting

How to provide a universal service (however defined) to a diverse population is no simple matter. How public broadcasting can reflect the informed consent of the citizenry while still exercising a degree of editorial and cultural independence is likewise an ongoing problem; yet these are issues that can be discussed and resolved in some acceptable, if not ideal, matter.
But a central and arguably fatal core problem exists for public broadcasting: how to coexist with a capitalist political economy. The trajectory is clear across the world: wherever public service principles are dominant, they eventually succumb to pressure to convert the broadcasting system to a largely commercial basis. And this always entails disastrous consequences for the nature of public broadcasting.

In the United States, this matter was settled in the mid-1930s. The system was established primarily to benefit commercial broadcasting, and public stations were confined to a niche on the margins, where they would not threaten the profitability of the commercial interests. In Canada, public service broadcasting was victorious in the early 1930s, so it started on much firmer terrain. The Canadian system carried less advertising than its U.S. counterpart, and granted more room for liberal and left-wing political ideas to circulate. Over the long haul, however, commercial interests were able to circumvent the parliamentary intent of the 1932 law consecrating public broadcasting. Over time, they reestablished their primacy in Canadian radio and television.

Today, that process has spread — marking the emergence, for the first time, of a global commercial media market dominated by a handful of enormous transnational corporations. These firms have earmarked global television as the very special fiefdom where they can spin their wares into gold. Public service broadcasting now faces a challenge quite unlike anything it has known before. Moreover, the interests of these corporate broadcast and media interests are aggressively represented by the U.S. government (among others) in international trade and copyright acts. The entire commercialization of media into a single global market appears to be the aim of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, and for very good reasons. It is difficult to imagine a viable integrated capitalist economy without having a global commercial media (and telecommunications) market.

Until quite recently, media were largely a national phenomenon. But today, following an unprecedented wave of mergers and acquisitions globally and in national markets, a global oligopolistic market covering the spectrum of media is crystallizing. National identities are blurred. The overall logic is less one of the U.S.A. versus other nations than it is corporate commercialism versus all other systems — or (dare I say it?) of capitalism versus democracy.

The main development of the 1990s has been the rapid rise of a global commercial television system dominated almost exclusively by the world’s 50 largest media firms. Where does public broadcasting fit into this new world order? On the surface, nowhere. The trend for public broadcasters is to accept the global commercial media system as it is, and attempt to locate a safe and lucrative niche within it. As the commercial logic expands from within, however, what public service broadcasters program will increasingly be indistinguishable from what is broadcast by the commercial media giants. This solution to the crisis of public service broadcasting is no solution at all. It is merely a different, if slower, form of death.

3. The First Amendment and the Mythology of Commercial Broadcasting

In the United States, the notion that commercial broadcasting is the superior system because it embodies market principles is closely attached to the notion that the market is the only “democratic” regulatory mechanism, and that this democratic market is the essence of Americanism, patriotism, and all that is good and true in the world. These themes all come together in the incessant campaign by commercial broadcasters to wrap their interests in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that prevents Congress from abridging freedom of speech and of the press.

The commercial broadcasters’ appropriation of the First Amendment is drenched in opportunism as much as any commitment to principles. The media giants use their political muscle not to battle for freedom of information but to protect their corporate privileges and subsidies. We are losing our capacity to distinguish public life from the commercial realm, with public life suffering as a consequence.

Private control and formal independence from the government is the genius of the current media system. In the past decade, the number of working journalists has been cut, the foreign bureaus of U.S. media firms have been shut down, and the content of the media has been shaded to suit the needs of the owners, advertisers, and the business community in general. Had these things occurred as the result of government edicts, it would have been regarded as a gross violation of the First Amendment. As it is, however, these developments happened through the organic workings of the commercial media market, receiving virtually no notice in the press or among the populace. Indeed, the First Amendment has been twisted to ensure that this process continues without recognition, debate, or interruption.

4. The Struggle for Media Reform

My argument leads to the inescapable conclusion that we need public service broadcasting more than ever before. Indeed, the commitment to public service broadcasting in the digital era is effectively a commitment to public service media writ large. The ultimate goal must be to have the public service sector be the dominant component of the broadcasting and media system. Hence the struggle for public service broadcasting cannot avoid direct confrontation with the existing corporate media giants.

But this is the proper subject of political debate. Our most immediate job is to put media issues on the political agenda, to convince people that it is their right in a democratic society to establish a media system that serves their needs. What is striking is how little right-wing media theories actually do resonate with the mass of people: the area of media reform is wide open and waiting for democratic media activists to exploit.

In doing this organizing, modern-day media activists would do well to take a page from Graham Spry and the first generation of public broadcasting activists. Spry generated enthusiasm for public broadcasting not merely by pointing out the inadequacies of commercial broadcasting. He and his colleagues also presented a vision of public broadcasting as a cornerstone of democracy. It was, and is, a vision that had tremendous appeal even to those not especially concerned with media affairs. The prospects for democratic media are linked to the prospects of a revitalized political movement.

The burgeoning global media activism can learn one other important lesson from Graham Spry and the first generation of public broadcasting reformers: the need to organize along global lines. In our era of a consolidated global media market, the need for transnational coordination is self-evident. In the end, our goal should be not merely to have a series of national media systems with dominant public service components, but to have a global public sphere as well, where people can communicate with each other without having the communication filtered and censored by corporate and commercial interests.

We have the technology and the resources to establish an extraordinarily rich and diverse media system, a system that is local, national, and global. What stands in the way is the power of the corporate media giants and the powers-that-be who prosper by the status quo. They are large, numerous, and powerful. But for all their wealth and power, they are not invincible. Ultimately, the quest for public service broadcasting and the broader quest for democratic communication are integral parts of the global struggle for human liberation.

(summary by Bram Abramson)