The public broadcasting service is often the subject of criticism. People complain that the quality of programmes needs improving, but improvement costs money. Now that the new broadcasting companies WNL and PowNed have been added to the service, this money will be stretched even further. Neither politicians or the general public seem to be very supportive of the idea of investing more money in public broadcasting. ‘This is odd’, says Huub Wijfjes, ‘because it goes against the general opinion that public broadcasting channels must distinguish themselves in quality from all the other channels’.
‘The public broadcasting service’s position in the highly competitive media world is very strong. Despite the large number of channels on offer, it has an enormous share of the market. Twenty years ago, when the first commercial channels were introduced, nobody would have expected the public service to still be the market leader with a market share of 34 percent (as opposed to the RTL and SBS group’s 24 percent). In fact, the public service was already being described as past its prime in 1934. Every few years this same message is repeated, but each time we discover that the public broadcasting service is firmly embedded in society’.
The public service has taken eighty years to grow into its current state: Three channels that evenly balance the needs of the general public (which are constantly changing) with the broadcasting companies’ interests. Wijfjes: ‘The public broadcasting service is still very powerful. If television content was left to the free market, these public wishes would not be adequately satisfied. Commercial channels only choose to broadcast content that will make them money, and this sometimes leaves certain groups and interests out of the picture. These include arts and culture, investigative journalism, minorities, quality drama and education. If you look carefully you will see that the public broadcasting service as a whole fulfils its function quite adequately’.
Wijfjes agrees that the public broadcasting service can of course be improved quite a bit. ‘Certain sectors are deteriorating or even disappearing completely. Think of investigative journalism or pluriform newsgathering. Dutch drama series are also being threatened by the constant calls for economization. But simply abandoning the whole system because it is time for something new is ridiculous’.
According to Wijfjes, newspapers are more than happy to contribute to the negative image of the public broadcasting service. ‘I’m inclined to think that jealousy is a big factor. Reviews of programmes are often scathingly critical but don’t present very convincing arguments. We tend to see the frustration mounting especially when the newspapers aren’t doing very well, as the public service is partly financed by the government while newspapers are not’.
However, this government financing is precisely what is causing trouble for the public broadcasting service. The fact that it is low is something that can be solved through cooperation. ‘Without cooperation between the various broadcasting companies it is difficult to finance more expensive projects such as high quality Dutch drama’. Unfortunately this cooperation often leads to problems. This is because the government demands that the different broadcasting companies show distinctive identities. ‘So while the 1990s saw encouragement towards cooperation, resulting in collective projects such as NOVA, Netwerk, Zembla and EénVandaag, these projects are now being dismantled because the government demands more distinction between the broadcasters. It is clear that government policy is not always consistent and is actually quite capricious’.
However, deciding therefore to completely dismantle the public broadcasting system is not the solution, according to Wijfjes. ‘That would eventually lead to cooperation, without a doubt, but that would not necessarily mean an improvement in quality. This would also risk the programmes becoming too politically and culturally neutral. This is something that you notice with a lot of BBC programmes’.
So what is the solution? A difficult question, says Wijfjes. ‘More and more cuts are being made in the money given to broadcasters. Additionally, audiences like watching programmes without advertisements, but it is these advertisements that provide an important portion of the broadcasters’ incomes (along with donations by members and the government support)’. This leads Wijfjes to believe that it is time for politicians and the press to take a more realistic view on the value of the public broadcasting service.
Wijfjes: ‘Society needs to be more realistic about what the commercial channels have to offer. In most cases it is disappointingly low-quality. The ‘big’ channels such as RTL and SBS do occasionally broadcast their own dramas or a proper journalism programme, but on the rest of the channels everything is imported’. This is despite there always being a market for Dutch productions, he says. ‘People always want to be confronted with their own identity. Of course an original Dutch drama series is expensive to produce, especially as they cannot usually be sold to other countries, unlike BBC dramas. But quality costs money’.
Reintroducing broadcasting tax will not solve the problem either, according to Wijfjes. ‘I did not support the decision to abolish it, but looking at the discussions being had in other countries, I think that it would have ended up being abolished anyway. The downside to the current situation is that the public broadcasting service gets kicked around in the political arena. Now we have politicians debating in parliament about the actual content of certain programmes, which is not something they should be concerned with’.
Prof. Huub Wijfjes (1956, Delft) is a media historian and professor by special appointment to the chair in Radio and Television History at the University of Amsterdam. He is also a lecturer and researcher at the Journalism Master’s degree programme at the University of Groningen. He regularly has publications on politics, history, media history and journalism in newspapers, magazines and journals.
Prof. H.B.M. Wijfjes
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