Following on from this year’s Public Broadcasters International (PBI) conference, PMA contributor and PBI panellist Davor Marko reflects on the key themes, lessons learnt and challenges facing contemporary public media organisations.

This year’s Public Broadcasters International offered managers and editors an opportunity to share experiences, ideas and approaches to the growing challenges faced by public media organisations worldwide.

Organised by Radio Romania in Sinaia, this year’s conference (12-13 September) tackled the key trends and ongoing challenges in media markets. While many smaller and emerging public broadcasters struggle to operate in an independent and sustainable way, more developed or entrenched public broadcasters face growing pressures from recently established commercial and corporate competitors that operate within the new media paradigms of more networked societies. One of the buzzwords describing PSM tactics to cope with this at PBI was “innovation”.

It was interesting and useful to hear experiences of managers from a broad range of countries, like Japan which is known for its technological supremacy, or from the US where the concept of public media significantly differs from the rest of the world, especially in terms of its funding model.

Funding and Specialisms

In Japan, to maintain relevance and to generate citizen trust, the NHK has prioritised the development of disaster reporting, which has proved to be highly efficient in times of natural disasters by keeping the public acutely aware and assisting authorities in saving lives through the provision of timely information. NHK’s concept of disaster reporting is based on a precise analysis of big data, warning systems and fast reaction as well as close cooperation with state and public institutions. Moreover, its coverage relies on dispassionate reporting, critical thinking and reflective reporting. Innovation is key: NHK has developed an interactive digital map of the entire country, with navigation systems and 3D reporting tools for reporters on the field. “Our ultimate goal, as [a] public broadcaster, is to protect and save human lives”, this is the rationale behind this NHK’s approach and undoubtedly something that citizens directly benefit from.

Our ultimate goal, as a public broadcaster, is to protect and save human lives – NHK

The US public media system consists of 265 local independent TV stations and 1094 local independent radio systems. Its annual budget is US$2 billion, which is comparatively small considering the number of broadcasters and country size. Out of this, 25% of funding is secured through individual membership, 16 % through Federal funding, 15% from business, 14% from state governments, 12% from colleges and universities, 7% from private donations, and 4% through grants and contracts. In 2015, the so-called ‘PBS passport’ was introduced enabling individuals to contribute to public media funding (minimum of $5 per month). Passport ‘owners’ are granted with extended content access and receive benefits while using content adapted for digital platforms. So far, the PBS community has attracted 250,000 members this way, with a 75% increase during the last year.

Besides licensee fee and advertising revenues, the South Korean public broadcaster, KBS, has increased revenues from a growth in content sales, which represents a ‘hybrid’ funding model. According to delegates, the shortcomings of this model include a decreased level of governmental awareness of PSM values, the broadcaster’s vulnerability to market economy fluctuations and to pressures from advertisers. Innovation is crucial for KBS to remain strong and independent. Enabling stable funding will allow them to remain relevant for their society and be an active generator of social dynamics.

Public Media and Democracy

As part of the conference, the Public Media Alliance (PMA), organised a session to discuss the relation between public media and democracy. The panel consisted of moderator Sally-Ann Wilson, CEO of PMA, Marius Dragomir from the CEU Centre for Media, Data and Society, Dr Okoth Fred Mudhai from Coventry University, and myself presenting on behalf of Analitika – Centre for Social Research. The session tackled the crucial questions related to the values and principles of public broadcasting that should be intrinsically linked to democracy, as well as the growth in authoritarian systems worldwide and their instrumental use of media to influence public discourse.

Illustrating it with different examples from around the world, and with a focus on the Western Balkans and Africa, we outlined and discussed the various challenges digitisation poses for public service broadcasters, emphasising that there has been a decline both in funding and audience numbers. A normative approach towards reformation of former state controlled broadcasters into public media, externally pushed by the EU and other actors, in the region of Western Balkan resulted with ‘hybrid’ models, which today do not function in line with their destined role – to inform citizens, to educate them and to provide a public forum for a variety of opinions and perspectives. New media ecologies shaped by new technology within the new media and societal paradigm of ‘network society’ have also undermined the traditional “regulatory toolkit” for public service media. New arrangements are needed; and urgently.

In order to overcome difficulties and remain relevant, public broadcasters need to find and define a new role, a new remit and a new funding model. To attract audiences and become a point of reference for objective, unbiased information, it would be crucial for them to provide relevant, quality content and ensure the transparency of their funding and governance.

Davor Marko is currently working as a non-resident research fellow at Analitika and is a non-resident fellow of the Center for Media, Data and Society, of the Central European University, Budapest. He is currently undertaking a PhD in culture and communication at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade.

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Header image: The PMA panel at PBI 2017. Image: Toshiyuki Sato