Public Service Media, Old and New : Vitalizing a Civic Culture? (1998)

In international discussions about the media one of the words most often associated with public service broadcasting is “crisis”. While in Sweden today, this is less the case than in the past, the present situation can hardly be characterized as business as usual. While “crisis” may not be on people’s lips in Sweden to the same degree as in the past, there are still lingering questions about the basic raison d’être of public broadcasting: what is its role, what are its visions for today and the future?

Given the factors confronting public service, such as the altered conditions of the nation state, the onslaught of global commercial media and a pervasive regulatory climate of deregulation, many will argue that the key issue now is clarifying its mission. We need to look at the public service vision against the backdrop of the current historical juncture. My presentation here, from a Swedish perspective, is a contribution to that end.

My point of departure is the inexorable link between public service and the democratic character of society. I want to develop a perspective on democracy that brings to the fore the cultural dimensions of public service anchoring it in the practices of everyday life. 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, then one of its tasks must be to vitalize the civic culture.

Making the transition

The turbulence in public broadcasting has a long history in Sweden. As in other countries, the advent of commercial television completely altered the circumstances for public service. There existed a non-commercial monopoly in Sweden until the late 1980’s when satellite channels began beaming into the country. These channels initially had minor impact on viewing patterns, an exception to this was TV3, which was beamed from London in Swedish which did attract a relatively large audience. The major impact of TV3 was to open the door for the idea of a terrestrial commercial channel.

Today, we have a mixed system with the non-commercial SVT 1 and 2, and the commercial TV4. The Swedish language satellite channel TV3 is also part of the landscape, as of course is the array of other satellite channels. The obvious point of interest here is how the non-commercial channels have adjusted to commercial competition and how the major commercial channel has adjusted to a socio-cultural climate which has been so shaped by the public service tradition.

Television today

Let me provide a quick overview of the current situation. 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 daily channel reach within the population, the three major national channels all cluster between 45 and 50 percent, while the satellite channel TV3 attracts less than 20 percent. In terms of market shares, the statistics are as follows: SVT1 and STV2, both hover around 25 percent, while TV4 has a slight edge with 28 percent; TV3 has 9 percent.

Given that TV4 has been such a success, how should the non-commercial channels respond? Program statistics indicate that since 1993 news and non-fiction have actually increased by 10% in each category on SVT2. Non-fiction has increased on STV1 by 6 percent in this same time span, while fiction has actually decreased by 6 percent, and on STV2 fiction has remained about the same. 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.

The traditional public service channels are clearly doing the best job in reflecting the growing heterogeneity of society, with their emphasis on minority interest programming. TV4’s diversity also remains fairly high, though clearly not as high as that of SVT 1 and 2. Within the context of the whole television system, it can be said that TV4’s more broadly popular programming relieves the non-commercial channels of having to pursue that strategy.

The social and cultural landscape

My intent here is not to suggest the export of a ‘Swedish model’, rather, the point of this brief overview is to anchor my reflections on public service in a specific national context.
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 cultural choice.

In economic terms, Sweden is an established welfare society, though its welfare has been drastically cut in the past decade. Unemployment figures are stagnating, class divisions are growing and politics tends to increasingly defer to and subordinate itself to the mechanisms of global capitalism.

Politically, Sweden is in the process of moving away from the basic corporatist model. Today, party loyalty, class identification, and movement membership are less predictable and 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 like many other countries Sweden has a mix of dominant, immigrant and indigenous ethnic groups. Value systems and religious views are often at variance with the dominant culture.

From a perspective of cultural choice, Sweden manifests similar patterns of differentiation as in other industrialized nations. 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.

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. We can retrieve the notion of democracy via the idea of universalism which is 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. Public service is premised as a right for all members of society. The principles of public service interlock with the fundamentals of democracy.

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. 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 must be mutually dependent. The idea of a civic culture points to the issue of some kind of unity in the face of increasing social fragmentation and differentiation.

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? 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. This commonality can be manifested by social and cultural groups who are very different from each other. Democracy is not about full consensus, but about compromise, trying to live together without oppressing each other, while we grapple with our divergent views.

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.
  •  To ensure visibility and recognition of minorities.
  •  To ensure cultural boundary-crossing in this communicative space.

In this, public service television’s 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. In the face of commercial television, 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.

Popular public service?

I mentioned earlier that the commercial channel TV4 in Sweden has become very successful. TV4 is in competition with SVT 1 and 2, yet I would argue that this competition has in fact benefited the overall television landscape in Sweden. If channel competition has led to a division of labor whereby TV4 relieves SVT of the burden of having to aim for the broadest popular appeal, it must be acknowledged that TV4 is ‘helping’ SVT in its public service role, since broad entertainment is also a part of the public service menu.

Digital developments

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? 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.

The economics of this budding industry underscores that this premise cannot be taken for granted. 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.What the digital revolution offers public service television is an opportunity to do more with the medium, as television. 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.

(Summary by James Piecowye)

Transcript : Public Service Media, Old and New : Vitalizing a Civic Culture? (1998)