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Debate: Public control of broadcasting

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Should government ownership of the broadcast media be ended?

Background and context

Almost every country has at least one state-owned broadcasting network alongside privately owned commercial rivals. Broadcasting was often begun by government initiative, with commercial radio and television following rather later, and almost everywhere the original networks remain in public ownership, funded by a license fee or by direct subsidy, while private broadcasters make money by selling advertising. Given the huge amount of privatisation of state-owned industries over the past twenty years, it seems surprising that broadcasting has stood apart from this trend. Is there something special about it that makes state ownership peculiarly beneficial, or should publicly owned broadcasters be sold off?

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Argument #1

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Yes

The broadcast media has so much power to form opinion that it is dangerous to give politicians too much power over it. Once in government, a political party can use the state’s ownership and control of television and radio stations to manipulate the news agenda and the view of the world received by its citizens - as the Milosovic regime did in Yugoslavia, for example.

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No

It is true that government should not be allowed a monopoly over broadcasting, but that is very rare outside totalitarian states. Usually countries have at least one privately owned broadcasting network competing with the government media and so limiting political manipulation by the state. In addition, corporatisation, as with the BBC in the UK, or CBC in Canada, sets the broadcaster up as impartial, allowing for the benefits of state ownership without the risk of political interference. Instead, the greatest risk of bias lies within a purely private broadcasting sector, where the high costs of entry and technological development encourage consolidation to the point where powerful individuals, such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, can manipulate the broadcast agenda in their own interests. Without the balance guaranteed by a state broadcast media, fair elections might become impossible.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The privatisation of broadcasting is in the interest of the public as consumers. As with all forms of nationalised industry, the market is a better judge of what consumers want than politicians and bureaucrats, who tend to give them what they think will be good for them. Privatising state broadcasters is likely to result in more popular programming, with much less money wasted on shows which very few people want to watch. It may also save the viewer money, as many state broadcasters are currently funded from regressive license fees, or through taxation via direct government subsidy, and because the state will benefit from a privatisation windfall. Regulation can ensure that certain minimum standards are maintained, and that, for example, children’s programming and serious current affairs coverage is safeguarded.

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No

The private sector will not deliver to all audiences, as it will inevitably target groups attractive to advertisers, who fund the programming. Groups with little purchasing power, such as children, the elderly and the poor are likely to be ignored. Popular programming is also likely to become simply populist, with low-cost game-shows and soap operas dominating the television schedules, and pop music and phone-ins cramming the radio waves. News coverage is also likely to suffer, as maintaining a large network of reporters is not seen as commercially viable. Free of this commercial imperative, state-owned media can aim to serve the whole of society and to concentrate upon quality broadcasting.

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Argument #3

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Yes

State ownership of the media distorts competition, harming private companies in their domestic marketplace and their ability to compete internationally. It does this because the government is funding a service that could be supplied profitably by the private sector - for example, a pop music radio station or broadcasting of sporting events. The market share of the private companies inevitably suffers, along with their ability to raise advertising revenue based upon their number of viewers or listeners. This means that private broadcasters end up with less money to spend on their programmes, and are less well placed to compete internationally.

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No

State ownership of broadcasting is good for the consumer, as it is free once your license fee or taxes have been paid. Private broadcasting is not free, the consumer pays through acceptance of irritating and unpopular advertising breaks at frequent intervals - absent on the state media. Increasingly private television companies are also seeking to make popular programming, such as sports events, concerts or films, pay per view, which threatens to discriminate against poorer viewers. Nor is it in the interest of current private broadcasters to see their state rivals privatised and forced to accept advertising, as the overall increase in advertising space would drive down the amount broadcasters could charge advertisers for a spot, reducing their revenues and profits.

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Argument #4

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Yes

In the past with analogue systems, radiowaves were a limited resource and it was perhaps reasonable for the government to control them tightly. With modern cable and digital broadcasting technology, however, it is possible to have a much larger number of television and radio stations. This means that every interest group and section of society will be catered for and that there will be plenty of scope for experimentation, while the best-funded broadcasters will also be trying to differentiate themselves with more expensive, quality programming.

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No

Profit-driven private broadcasters have to play it safe, serving up bland fare in tried and tested formats. Unfortunately, many of the best and most memorable programmes require risk-taking, challenging conventions and demanding that the audience feel uncomfortable. State broadcasters are much more able to take such a long view, accepting that flops will be made as the price for occasional, mould-breaking gems. They can also aim to cater for society as a whole, airing programming which brings a nation together around the television set, rather than seeking to cater purely for a great many different small niche markets.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Privatisation would be good for former state broadcasters, exposing them to the bracing impact of proper competition and forcing them to focus more effectively upon their strengths while eliminating waste. Freed from government control, they would be less exposed to political decisions about the level of a license fee or direct subsidy, and better able to raise finance in the capital markets. This would allow them to compete internationally in the changing digital marketplace, developing commercial operations, and ploughing increased profits back into better programme-making for their domestic market.

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No

Government-owned broadcasters are already exposed to competition as their audience figures are compared with those of their private rivals, and they constantly have to justify the level of their license fee or subsidy. Outsourcing most actual programme making, as the BBC does, provides a competitive environment in which costs can be controlled effectively. Nor does public ownership prevent raising organisations from raising money - government bodies often resort to bond issues to fund investment. The BBC has successfully launched BBC Worldwide and developed a profitable commercial arm while remaining state-owned. On the other hand, some valuable activities, such as the BBC World Service, would suffer in the free market and require government protection.

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