Advertising revenues in decline, the temporary suspension of employees and now a licence fee reduction are just some of the financial pressures facing SRG SSR in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. But following an announcement about extra government support, will the Swiss public broadcaster soon see better days?

Today, the international news platform of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG SSR), (SWI), published its 2019 annual report highlighting its recent achievements, such as a sharp rise in its monthly online readership.

From an average of 1,049,111 to 1,236,658 unique clients in 2019, SWI management attributed this to the strong demand for independent journalism from the public broadcaster and its role in tacking disinformation:

“Global crises such as the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic make it clear how fertile the breeding ground is for fake news in uncertain times, and therefore how urgent the need is for trusted reporting from the public media, including Switzerland’s international service.”

But, like many media organisations, COVID-19 has taken its financial toll on public broadcasting in the country. The cancellation of major sporting and cultural events has had a major impact. Some of SRG SSR’s planned productions can no longer go ahead and management admits that a considerable amount has been lost in advertising revenue, a figure of which is expected to be within the “double-digit million range.”

Consequently, management earlier this month decided to temporarily suspend approximately 600 employees across several of its operations whose jobs are in some way affected by Covid-19. In a press release, the public broadcaster’s management explained: “With this measure, the SRG wants to help ensure that the jobs affected are preserved.”

Read more: The SRG applies for short-time work for some of the employees

Then, on 16 April the Swiss Federal Council decided to reduce the annual household licence fee, which predominantly funds public television and radio in Switzerland, following a tariff review.

Starting in 2021, private households will now pay CHF 335, a decrease of CHF 30 from CHF 365. The licence fee was already reduced last year by CHF 86. Shared households such as retirement homes and student accommodation will also pay a reduced rate of CHF 670 from CHF 730, and companies with less than CHF 500,000 annual turnover will not have to pay fees – approximately 3 in 4 companies are therefore exempt. The tariff will be reviewed again in two years’ time.

The Federal Council claims that this tariff restructure is possible since “the number of households liable to pay taxes has increased more than was originally assumed. In addition, fewer households have exempted themselves from the obligation to pay…”

Read more: Radio and television tax will be CHF 30 cheaper from 2021

Read more: Insight | The “No Billag” Swiss Saga

Licence fee exemption in Switzerland came to a head during the 2018 “No Billag” referendum, a nation-wide campaign, which effectively saw the survival of public service broadcasting in Switzerland put into the hands of the Swiss public. Even though public media was ultimately protected from the proposal to scrap the mandatory licence fee, austerity measures and reforms have continually been put in place ever since, in an attempt to ensure the efficient running of the public broadcaster and appease “No Billag” supporters.

For a nation that has four national languages, such financial restraints could pose serious challenges for a public broadcaster that is mandated to serve all members of society.

However, the Swiss government has now announced that it will be providing more financial support to help alleviate some of the pressures from declining revenues. It will be contributing an additional CHF 50 million to the country’s public media bodies, bringing total annual government support up to CHF 1.25 billion.

While the additional funding could help to soften the impact of a drop in advertising income, concerns remain for the long-term sustainability of the broadcaster as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread. Elsewhere in Europe, other public broadcasters with a mixed-funding model, such as RTBF in Belgium and ORF in Austria, also expect significant losses in advertising revenues. ORF even anticipates an increase in licence fee exemption.

These financial impacts come at a time when public media is needed more than ever. The Public Media Alliance will continue to monitor developments regarding SRG SSR’s financial situation.

Header image: SRG-SSR building in Zurich. Credit: Roland zh/Creative Commons