Are Public Service Broadcasters still relevant?

Public Service broadcasters (PSB) are relevant and useful in today’s society as they provide access to services that may be unaccounted for by commercial free to air broadcasters. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) charter gives it this mandate. Other PSBs around the world serve a similar mandate.

Public Service Broadcasters are also not beholden to the need to make a profit, only to what is outlined in the relevant legislation and charter. The ABC’s charter provides that the broadcaster must present programming that informs, educates, and entertains the audience.(Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 [Cwlth]) It must also make reasonable effort to provide Australia with a representation of the cultural diversity of it’s community at large. Where the ABC falls down in this regard – the provision of multilingual news bulletins and entertainment, and indigenous programming – the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) picks up through its SBSOne and Viceland channels, and National Indigenous Television (NITV) respectively. Other than it’s English language shows SBSOne provides programming in languages such as Greek, German, Arabic, Italian and Spanish amongst others. National Indigenous Television, meanwhile, provides theirs in a variety of indigenous languages as well as English. The ABC and the SBS have both faced criticism, rightly or wrongly, for audience away from the commercial networks. Bardoel and Lowe (2007) write that the “culture versus commerce divide is the most characteristic tension in debate about [Public Service Broadcasters], and especially in the context of deliberations about the transition to [Public Service Media].” It can be argued that without the ABC creating and implementing it’s iView service the commercial networks may have taken longer to create and implement their own Catch Up TV services. In this way the ABC can be said to have innovated Catch Up TV in Australia. Section 2 of the ABC’s charter specifies that the Corporation shall consider amongst other things, the services provided by other broadcaster, the standards set by the Australian Communication and Media Authority, and the balance of programming with wide appeal and more specialised programming.

Public Broadcasters have historical acted in incubatory and innovative roles. Scannell (1990) notes that the creation of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and it’s radio and television channels provided common access to a wide range of public ceremonies and events. He uses royal weddings, and an FA Cup soccer final amongst other examples of such events broadcast. Commercial broadcasters have since broadcast such events. At a local level both commercial, and community broadcasters in Australia have provided an outlet for equivalent events in their respective areas. (TV8 1986; Channel 31 2015) Before the aggregation of regional television, each licence area outside of the capital cities had one commercial television station, and the ABC. The presence of the ABC – at least from the 1974 Joint Sitting of the federal parliament onwards – provided the regular citizens with access to their national parliament. East (1997) notes that when the Post Master General Charles Davidson announced in 1959 stage three of televisions roll out in Australia it was concluded that the ABC would broadcast alongside commercial stations that met certain conditions. He quotes Oswin (1984 p50) as saying, “A great deal of capital would not be require. Local sports and … local concerts could be televised” And indeed they were. (TV8 1986) It can be argued that both the ABC and the SBS have provided an innovative approach to broadcasting by introducing a variety of television channels, radio stations that are broadcast both locally and nationally. Debrett (2009) contends that these innovations are limited by policy and funding constraints. While the SBS receives limited advertising revenue, the ABC relies more heavily on taxpayer funding. In 2003, suck funding limitations lead to the cancellation of the ABC’s first digital channels – FlyTV, and Kidz. Subsequent legislative change allowed the ABC to launch ABC2 – initially performing a time shift function – and the SBS to launch it’s World News channel. While channels like National Geographic have taken some of the audience traditionally held by Public Service Broadcasters, these channels are only available on (commercial) Pay TV. The SBS currently has amongst it’s streams a food channel. For this channel it produces some programmes produced by Australian producers as well as licensing content from overseas. These more specialised, innovative uses of broadcasting techniques demonstrate why Public Service Broadcasters are still relevant and remain competitive.

Public Service Broadcasters can rely on it’s network of stations to provide sufficient content for each individual hub. Commercial stations are not necessarily as lucky. Where a commercial station is run independently of a metropolitan station it is in a position where the metro station has the upper hand. (East 1997) In the early 1960’s, New South Wales stations WIN Wollongong and NBN Newcastle were both denied access to content from the two Sydney stations – ATN7, and TCN9. Most regional stations currently in existent are owned by a network, whether that be Prime, Win, Southern Cross, or NBN. (ACMA 2014) These networks all have affiliation agreements with the metropolitan networks Seven, Nine or Ten. Where there is a news story about a regional area opening a transport hub that would connect it to major centres or a capital city, a Public Service Broadcaster may well be in a better position to communicate the story back to a central hub for wider broadcast. Unless they are owned and operated by the metropolitan networks – Seven Nine, and Ten – or have it written into there affiliation agreements, regional commercial broadcasters do not contribute content back into a common pot. For example, Seven Queensland is an owned and operated network of the Seven Network. A cameraman in Brisbane can shoot footage that is then used in a local news bulletins down the Queensland coast as well as state bulletins in each state.. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation could film the same event for stories broadcast in each capital city and into regional areas around the country.

Public Service Broadcasters are still relevant in today’s society as they still provide the content that is mandated by their charters. To make a point otherwise would be to ignore these charters.


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Scannell, P 1990, ‘Public Service Broadcasting: The History of the Concept’, in Goodwin, A & Whannel G (ed.), Understanding television, Routledge, London; New York, pp. 11-29



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