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Limiting the sphere of public broadcasting is a bad idea

For over a decade a debate has been raging in Finland about the status of public broadcasting. The issue is less about whether public broadcasting should exist alongside commercial broadcasting and more to do with the remit of public broadcasting.

Linus Atarah

Finnish commercial broadcasters have been at the throat of YLE, the Finnish public broadcaster accusing it of over extending its remit into programme areas that should be left to commercial broadcasting.

But a gathering of prominent broadcasters and researchers in a seminar organised by Radio and Television Journalists Federation (RTTL) in Helsinki last week said confining public broadcasters such as YLE to limited programme areas is counterproductive.

“If the question is whether YLE should be a media enterprise offering a diversified service and integrating the whole society or something filling in the gaps left by the commercial channels, I have a clear response, rather a comprehensive than a complementary service”, said Heikki Hellman, a journalist in Helsingin Sanomat.

Andra Leurdijk, senior researcher and consultant at the Netherlands-based TNO Information and Communication Technology, said restricting public broadcasters remit is a bad idea because it would make public broadcasting companies to lose out in the digital age and along with it, the young people and the ability to reach out to a broader audience.

YLE has fifty per cent of market share in radio and about 45 per cent in television, with four television and six radio channels. Therefore the commercial broadcasters who are struggling for a decent market share would naturally view YLE as depriving them of something.

 

Public broadcasting in a democratic society, says Hellman, should play the role of cementing social cohesion by serving as a forum that pulls the citizens together. It can only do that by being able to reach out for a universal audience with a diversified programming otherwise it will not permeate the audiences as it has to in order to fulfil this task

 “If you think it is important to have good quality programming that can bind people together, provide platform for debate, provide good journalism that gives space to people who want to experiment with new programming formats, then there is the need to continue supporting public broadcasting”, says Leurdijik.

Financing public broadcasting is equally a thorny issue as defining its remit.

 

The attempt to scrap the license fee in Finland and replace it with a new media fee covering every household has been scuppered by lack of political will. So the future of financing of YLE is yet unknown until a new government assumes power after the elections in the spring.

But Andra Leurdijik advises that Finland can device any financing model for its public broadcasting but it should steer clear of the Dutch model which scrapped the license fee and replaced with financing public broadcasting from the state budget.

Funding of public broadcasting from state budget leads to much more direct influence from the government. “That would make the arm’s length to the government’s process too short”, says Christian Nissen, former director of Denmark’s broadcasting company DR. Nissen is definitely in favour of a license fee.

The pitfall in budget financing is that it can be overturned overnight but with license fee, in spite of its own shortcomings, is gradual and not subject to annual debate within the cabinet.

However, in Finland the prospect for license fee to redeem public service broadcasting is rather fading because there is too much evasion and so the best option according to Hellman, would probably be a media fee that covers all households.

YLE is operating with a budget of deficit of 30 Euros. Next year that will be reduced to 20 million due the to14 Euros increase in TV license fee announced this spring.

The new CEO of YLE, Lauri Kivinen has suggested that the hole be patched by increasing the use of domestic production and giving away the rights to certain sporting events.