The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Our Children’s Future: Does Public Service Media Matter?

PSM Means ‘Personalised Streaming Media’

Timandra Harkness argues there is a role for public service media, but if everything has changed for the younger audience then we also need to change everything about the way we approach these questions.

Only three things have changed about Public Service Broadcasting: The Public, Service, and Broadcasting.

Broadcasting is the most obvious of the three. When the BBC first began radio broadcasting in November 1922, it joined a media environment that was top-down, disseminating the editorial decisions of a few to the masses. Like the handful of newspaper owners at the time, those who ran the BBC got to decide what the masses wanted, needed, and (most importantly) what they would get.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, 27 million people, over half the adult population of the UK, watched the ceremony live on Britain’s only television channel. For the first time, a mass audience could share the state occasion in real time, many on sets bought especially for the occasion.

Since then, channels have proliferated. First, the single television channel became two, three, four, five and counting. Next, satellite and then cable supplemented the airwaves, and now both free and subscription media arrive via the internet. That multiplication of channels and choices was the first change to overtake broadcasting.

The sharing of broadcast experiences went from being the norm, to the exception.

When Neil Armstrong set the first human foot on the Moon in 1969, half a billion people around the world watched it on various television stations. That’s over 10% of the Earth’s population at the time. The Times described it as “the first event of such historic significance to be shared so widely and known so immediately”

Today, people still share the experience of watching television. In fact, social media makes it easier than ever to find your fellow enthusiasts, whether for WandaVision, Strictly, or a tell-all royal interview. You don’t need to know, or ever meet, the thousands of others expressing delight, suspense or outrage over the same programme. A hashtag is enough to make you part of a movement, at least while the wave is trending, before the next big thing overtakes it.

But that ease of generating a social media response belies the fragmentation of the audience. For every child commenting on WandaVision, many more can’t even see it because they don’t subscribe to the Disney Channel. A broadcast event can be big news in a certain demographic, while other segments of the audience are oblivious to its existence.

It is rare today for one channel to attract the majority of viewers, as ITV did for ‘Oprah with Meghan and Harry’, watched live by over 11 million people, 54% of the UK television audience at that time. Apart from Government Covid-19 official broadcasts, that’s the biggest TV audience since the December 2020 Strictly Come Dancing final on BBC One. Another couple of million people watched the Harry and Meghan interview live by streaming it online via ITV Hub.

And that move to streaming services is the next big shift in our relationship with broadcasters.

Streaming means on-demand viewing. Although children do still engage with live TV, audience figures are flat or falling, while audiences for streaming services grow. Like so many other things in our 21st Century lives, we expect television to be there when, where, and how we want it. Sometimes, that’s still live, as we don’t want to miss out on something all our friends and rivals will be talking about (probably online). But increasingly, we regard programmes as products to be consumed at our convenience and pleasure. This is especially true for children.

Broadcasting is no longer the right word for media designed for a segmented audience. A personalised service, offering curated content for each individual, based on a profile built from data, represents an entirely different relationship between source and recipient.

Streaming changes the one-way, top down, flow of information and entertainment to the audience, into a two-way flow of data. While we and our children watch, or channel hop, or even while we use the same internet connection to do a dozen other things online, we and our children are being profiled and our future viewing desires predicted. Even the BBC, if you watch via iPlayer, offers to personalise your content. In return, of course, it wants to collect data on what you already watch, both to provide you with a more targeted service, and to add to its aggregated audience data.

Other streaming services don’t even ask. They simply collect the data and then offer you further viewing that you might like. Sometimes that’s because others before you liked both {thing you just watched} and {thing they’re now suggesting you watch next}. Sometimes it’s more broadly aimed at people demographically similar to you, or in the same postcode (which, for marketing purposes, often means the same thing).

So, what we mean by ‘service’ is also transformed.

It’s revealing that what we and our kids watch (or hear, or read) is increasingly referred to as ‘content’ that we consume at our own convenience. We browse rival providers and select from menus, soliciting recommendations from friends as well as reviewers. Our media diet is as much a matter of choice as the food and drink our bodies consume.

For 16-25 year olds, more hours of content are consumed via online streaming or YouTube than from live television. For all age groups, live television is gradually losing its dominance to streaming on demand. The BBC no longer competes only against ITV or SKY, but against free online content, much of it shared peer-to-peer via social media.

Millions of people watched Harry and Meghan talking to Oprah, but the annoyingly catchy song, ‘Baby Shark,’ has had over 6 billion views, without ever being broadcast by traditional channels. We still share cultural experiences, and news information, but we play a more active role in that sharing process, whether by selecting our sources, or by pro-actively passing on what we find, to selected friends or to a public audience of our own.

We are served by the providers of what we want to see, hear, or read, at times and places of our own choosing, on phone screens or generously-sized televisions, in our ears while we go running, or with the whole family on the sofa. And, of course, we are also served up to advertisers who, armed with information about our online lives that goes far beyond our viewing tastes, can target us with personalised ads on our personalised media channel.

All this means that it makes less sense than ever to talk about The Public as a singular noun. Academics working in Public Engagement and similar disciplines have long talked about ‘publics’, making the slightly clunky point that we are a roiling swirl of individuals and contingent subpopulations, not a homogenous mass. In practical terms, communication has always been segmented for different kinds of audience. Now those segments are so small that we may each be the only person in our tailored niche.

Today, although we still share some broadcast events, we experience the unprecedented range of media output as unique individuals, making broad choices about platforms and channels, and narrower choices from the menus they show us. Instead of a few editors deciding what is important enough for our time and attention, what we get is filtered, partly by commissioning editors, partly by algorithms, and partly by a network of other humans who pass things on.
We are a heterogenous public, seeking services that provide content tailored to our personal tastes and convenience, through a multiplicity of channels that are less and less likely to be broadcast.

What, then, remains of the idea of public service broadcasting?

The founding 1927 Charter established the BBC as a Public Corporation “acting as Trustees for the national interest,” citing the “public benefit” of establishing such a corporation, its great value “as a means of education and entertainment,” and the widespread interest of “Our People” in the broadcasting service. That is, the subjects of King George V, in whose name the Charter was granted.

This idea of serving the public with education and entertainment, for their benefit as well as according to what interested them, was seen as valuable both to the People and to the nation as a whole. It was intended to benefit not only individual members of the public, two million of whom had already demonstrated their enthusiasm for radio by buying licences to receive it, but The Public.

The “public benefit” was a collective interest in sharing education, news and entertainment. Bringing together a nation recovering from a World War, haunted by revolutions abroad and economic depression at home, was a political as well as a social goal. Hunger marches and strikes reminded the Government that The Public was not just a passive audience, but a divided and dissenting demos.

Broadcasting as a Public Service could play a number of roles. It could respond to the public aspiration for access to the better things in life, as well as the aspiration of reformers like Lord Reith to widen that access and strengthen democracy. It could improve general standards of education, in broad and narrow senses, which would benefit everyone by nurturing an informed and engaged citizenry. And it could provide common cultural ground and shared truths about the world.

That was the vision in 1927, but those goals still sound relevant in 2021. Is it still possible to meet them?

The fragmentation of The Public, which was never one united voice or mind, into millions of individuals, will not be reversed by better media. Arguably, dissent and disagreement should be fostered, as the best ways to explore and test different views of how the world is, and how it should be. But the cultivation of common ground on which to disagree should be a core mission for Public Service Media.

This is one thing that the transformation of top-down, one-way broadcasting into the multi-directional network of social media and cross-platform output could make easier. It is dangerous to mistake the noise of particular social media platforms for the public conversation #TwitterIsNotTheNation. Nevertheless, online interactions have massive potential for opening that conversation to millions of people who would never phone a radio station or write a letter to a newspaper.

A vibrant and productive forum for public debate is not just something that’s nice for individuals to feel that they have a voice. It is important for the Public Benefit, for all of us, young and old, because it is as essential to democracy as the ability to cast a meaningful vote.

This common ground also relies on some shared truths about reality, and that in turn relies on trustworthy news and information providers. Impartiality and rigour have never been more important. The availability of the internet to almost anyone who wants to check a fact or figure should only make journalists more thorough and more transparent about the sources of their data. More than anyone else, journalists and editors need to check stories that ring true to them even more thoroughly than those that don’t, mindful of the human tendency to believe evidence that backs our prior views more readily than annoying facts which challenge them.

The media cannot fall back on presumed authority, or cut corners on small truths to tell a ‘bigger truth.’ In polarised times, the media needs to set an example of constantly checking and testing narratives as well as individual facts and stories. A culture in which more of us are open to changing our minds, or at least to listening to opposing views with respect and reflection, needs to include the most authoritative and confident public figures.

How does this mission square with our new idea of a service as something that, because we pay for it, should give us what we want? There are already calls to separate the media channels that give us entertainment, information, and companionship, from things that are of Public Benefit.

We shouldn’t be too hasty, though, to see state provision of reliable news and civil discussion as the solution. Competition between news outlets continues to benefit the public by holding to account public bodies, businesses, and occasionally media rivals. A state-mandated body deciding what is true, or what is civil, smells like totalitarianism.

The regulation of broadcast and print media has always trodden a difficult line between quality control and censorship, and the extension of such regulation into the online world multiplies that dilemma a millionfold. Whether we see the internet as democratising publishing, or industrialising public discourse, governments should be very reluctant to limit that public forum.

Public appetite for news and for debate has not disappeared, and Covid-19 has only fed our desire for reliable information. Nor has the move online fed polarisation by dividing us into news silos and echo chambers. Researchers have found that we tend to take advantage of easy access to a variety of news sources. In contrast to a generation or two ago, when individuals could choose a newspaper and perhaps favourite TV and radio channels, and never know what their neighbours were reading and thinking, this generation tends to be open to content from a wider range of viewpoints.

In a world where we’ve become used to endless free content, or to freely choosing a provider whose menu matches our tastes, funding is a real problem. Public Service Media providers have an uphill task persuading the public that a service sometimes meets a shared social need, not the distinct needs of every individual.

We’re not going back to the top-down, Lord-Reith-knows-what-is-good-for-you broadcasting of the past. But Covid-19 also reminded us both that we need each other, and that we have unresolved issues that need to be brought into the open. Media that can help address those challenges might yet persuade The Public that they still matter.

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By Timandra Harkness

Timandra Harkness writes and presents BBC Radio 4 documentaries, including Divided Nation and Five Knots, and series FutureProofing and Steelmanning. Regular Radio and TV appearances to discuss current affairs, especially issues around technology, include Newsnight, Any Questions, Politics Live and Free Thinking.

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