April 16, 2009

PSB, economics, politics and other things I should understand

I have been trying to get to grips with recent movements in understanding, theorising, even practicing Public Service Broadcasting. By recent I mean the last thirty years, which for most people isn't that recent but academics can be a rather slow moving bunch.  It is proving to be quite difficult, mostly because I am totally unschooled in economics, which seems to have become the basis for conceptualising public culture over this period.

Using the language of 'market failure', 'externalities', 'merit goods', rival/non-rival and exculdable/non-excludable and the like produces analysis that looks empirical, provable, rational and unarguable.  I'm not sure that what public service means surely is reducible to equations, charts, tables. The way I understand public service is a bit like religious beliefs or political ideologies - it is something that means different things to different people, with certain core components which all can agree on.  Some of these are economic, or quasi-economic - a public means of funding, paid for by all in return for universal access to the service provided; some are political - the creation of a sphere for debate and the exchange of ideas where democratic citizenship may more effectively be played out, given the requisite information and dissemination of skills.  Some even dare to be 'aesthetic' - the emphasis on quality (more recently, on 'standards') for example. 

A key problem with the concept has been its flexibility, but this has also been an asset to it.  For example, we can understand it simultaneously as a means to disseminate a rather rigid 'national' culture and as a way of understanding and appreciating the diverse communities and nations which come together to create that culture.  PSB has been able to change with the times, to maintain its relevance and to meet the changing needs of the crucial 'public' that it was designed to serve. Now it is most commonly seen as a manner of making programmes which would not be made in a purely commercial set up.  There are obvious reasons why this is relevant in my field of research, since the British Film industry is an example of where a market completely saturated by commercial products from a parallel culture (Hollywood) seems to have no room left for another desirable, but risky and low-yield, product (British national cinema).

To me, though, it is access rights which are the crucial point of PSB, and finding a way of addressing people which is inclusive as well as interesting, informative and so on.  The point is not just that a PSB makes quality, diverse, interesting and challenging programming.  It is also that everybody has the right, everybody has the chance and everybody has the desire to see it.  Creating this desire to be informed and educated has been a real asset of the PSB set up.  Creating a taste for quality programming, without falling into the trap of telling people what their tastes ought to be in a condescending way is the real test of the public service broadcaster. 

Furthermore, creating a system wherein new talents can be developed, and different means and manners of address can be explored should be the function of a public service broadcaster.  It seems to me that the British PSBs carry out this function well, although less so now perhaps than in the past.  The BBC is particularly guilty of exploiting and over-exposing its most popular new talents (for example, James Corden and Mat Horne, although I think they probably did much of the over-exposing themselves.)

For now, I will try my best to understand a language in which I remain untrained, and of which I am sceptical, if only so that I can join the debate at the level at which it has been conducted in recent times.  Frustrating as this may be, I think it may now be the only way of defending a system that has been at the heart of public culture throughout its lifespan and without which our democratic (not to mention cultural) life would be much poorer.


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  • I didn't watch any of "Britain's got Talent" until the final so I didn't get caugtr up in it all. I … by Sue on this entry

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