The Future of Public Service Broadcasting in the Western Balkans: The Need for a New paradigm

by Davor Marko, Analitika – Center for Social Research

Public Service Broadcasters (PSB) in the countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia – are in crisis. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state-level public broadcaster BHRT announced that it would stop broadcasting its programs in July 2016 due to the lack of funding, highlighting the deep structural crisis of the PSB system in the country. 1

In early 2016, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, the regional public service broadcaster RT of Vojvodina was put under direct control of the central government. In Croatia, an EU member, the national broadcaster HRT underwent a radical reshuffling of key personnel and changes to editorial policy only a few months after the new conservative government took office in late 2015. Similarly, the PSB in Kosovo is in a deep financial crisis, facing eviction from the premises it cannot afford to rent. In Macedonia and Montenegro the status of PSBs has been the subject of protracted negotiations among political actors, the international community, and media professionals. Besides financial and operational problems, PSB in Albania is struggling for its audience – it has the lowest audience market share compared to other public broadcasters in the region.

These problems exist amidst the wider challenges stemming from small and oversaturated media markets, growing competition from the private sector, and changing audience preferences, which are rapidly moving away from traditional broadcasting towards online and mobile media platforms and asynchronous modes of consumption of media content.

The failure to deal with accumulated problems and adjust to the new technological trends and audience needs undermines the very legitimacy of PSB in the region of the Western Balkans. Although these broadcasters are funded by citizens through license fee or state budgets, it seems they are less and less accountable to them, do not provide the necessary services, and almost never include citizens in discussions on program quality and service improvements. All of these symptoms of crisis point to three underlying existential threats faced by PSB in these countries:

  • The first threat is that of political colonization and instrumentalization of PSB, which is the consequence of illiberal tendencies and politicization of the media landscape in general. In such a context, regulatory frameworks and legislative protection of PSB independence seem to be ineffective against populist and increasingly authoritarian elites who adjust laws as they wish, in order to turn PSB into instruments of political power or to minimize their influence as an independent and democratic voice.
  • The second threat is that of a broken funding model. The funding models for PSB have virtually collapsed in several countries, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Countries that still have license fee systems are struggling with inefficiencies of fee collection, while those PSBs that have been funded from the state budget are becoming even more vulnerable to governmental interference into their daily operations.
  • Finally, the third existential threat comes from the failure of PSB in the region to adjust to the new technological environment and redefine their structure, operation, and services in line with consumption habits and preferences of the audience. While in the West the concept of public service broadcasting has evolved into the model of public service media (PSM), which embraces mobile technologies, internet platforms, and interactive content adjusted to increasingly fragmented audiences, in the Western Balkans such a transformation occurred only partially in Croatia and Serbia. PSBs in the region still operate in an outdated paradigm of traditional public service broadcasting, almost completely neglecting the rapid changes in the media landscape, thus rendering them less and less relevant.

These threats highlight fundamental problems with the dominant paradigm of PSB in the Western Balkans. If PSB is to survive, significant changes must be introduced regarding the way how it is governed and funded and how it is positioned in the digital media environment. Current local discussions and debates should be infused by new approaches and ideas in order to preserve public broadcasters and enable their development.

  • First of all, new models of funding must be introduced that secure adequate financial resources, while eliminating the possibilities for political interference into financial matters of PSBs. These models cannot be simply transplanted from other countries but must be developed internally by each country, taking into account the specificity of local contexts.
  • The finances of PSB must be made fully transparent. Mechanisms of public control over financial operation of PSB, such as regular reporting on financial activities, publishing annual financial reports, public hearings and discussions, and free access to information and documents should be introduced and enforced. The Croatian and Serbian cases offer some examples of good practice in that respect, for example their decisions to regularly publish information on their employees’ income.
  • There is clearly a need for more accountable management. PSB governance must be restructured in order to ensure, to the greatest extent possible, the efficient control over its operations by citizens, and to reduce the space for interference by political parties, the government, and economic interests. This can be done, for example, by expanding the number of participants in their supervisory boards or program councils, so that they better accommodate interests and needs of different segments of society. Moreover, the decision-making procedures have to be made much more transparent, by guaranteeing full access to official information to citizens, based on the principles of proactive transparency. Independence in decision-making should be guaranteed through laws and regulations, as well as through personal integrity and expertise of those appointed to govern PSB.
  • In the era of fragmented audiences, PSB should preserve its core function – to be universal in its reach – and to find a balance between the universal reach imperative and the more personalized and specialized contents audience is looking for. This is to be done increasingly through new media channels and social media platforms, as well as through classic broadcasting.
  • PSB also should follow high quality standards, production excellence, and promote ethical values in all its programs.
  • PSB should reflect the diversity of the society in which it operates, both in content and in its personnel structure. It should be open for all political viewpoints, and truly reflect the cultural, linguistic, ethnic, political, sexual, and territorial diversities of a country. In this regards, PSB has to be open, building a relationship with various and diverse groups and communities. PSB has to strive for excellence and distinctiveness which would be demonstrated in all genres and types of content, and through different media and communication platforms, especially focusing on new media formats and technologies.
  • For PSB in the Western Balkans, this means that they should finally start the long overdue transformation from the classic broadcasters to the Public Service Media (PSM) model of the digital era. In order to be able to make this transformation, these organizations must become engines of innovation in the use of new technologies, introduction of new formats and services, and in forging new forms of engagement with citizens. The decline of linear viewing, demand for more personalized contents, and migration from desktop to mobile devices, should be strategically embraced.

The leap forward from the dysfunctional models of PSB in the Western Balkans towards a PSM model requires breaking up with the traditional broadcasting paradigm while at the same time building new, stronger relationship with audiences and the society in general. Such a relationship must rest on quality, transparency, trust, independence and accountability. Failure to do so will probably result in the failure of the very idea of PSB.

***

This blog is a summary of key points discussed at the international conference “The Future of Public Service Media in the Western Balkans: Never-Ending Transition?” that was held in Sarajevo, on the May 19th and 20th 2016. The conference was organized by the Department of Communication and Media Research DCM at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland) and the Center for Social Research Analitika (Bosnia and Herzegovina). The conference was part of the project “The Prospect and Development of Public Service Media: Comparative Study of PSB Development in Western Balkans in Light of EU Integration” funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation through the SCOPES (Scientific Cooperation between Eastern Europe and Switzerland) program.

[1] The BHRT Steereing Board had announced that it would stop broadcasting from July, 1, 2016, but this decision was later revoked.

The article was originally published by Analitika – Center for Social Research. It is republished here with permission. 

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* - References to Kosovo are without prejudice to positions on status. They are in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244/99 and the opinion by the International Court of Justice on the Kosovo declaration of independence.